The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 26, 2011

Tornado funds came with strings attached

By Adam Smith

ATHENS — Following the April 27 and May 15 tornado events, millions in federal funds poured into the state giving homeowners and businesses a chance to rebuild their lives.

In Limestone County, the U.S. Small Business Administration provided $3.47 million in low-interest loans. A total of 1,512 loans were provided to homeowners for a total of $3.34 million. About 314 small business loans were approved for a total of $126,600.

An updated number on the amount of FEMA grants  provided to county residents was not available prior to deadline.

Though some residents lost years’ worth of personal property, the combination of federal and insurance funds placed large sums of money into the hands of those affected. In the months following the disaster, local agencies worked with residents to ensure recovery plans were in place.

Kaye Young McFarlen, director of the Athens-Limestone United Way, said the majority of residents who received funds spent the money to recover, though that wasn’t always the case.

“We had a few people take advantage of it, but most had a recovery plan and knew what they were going to do,” she said. “Some where really prudent and smart, though some were just living in the moment. They weren’t looking past renting this home and saying, ‘This is the home I’ve always wanted to live in, but I can’t afford it several months from now.’”

The April 27 event caused extensive damage in the Tanner and East Limestone communities. McFarlen said more East Limestone residents were properly insured, though all affected homeowners were faced with dilemmas.

“There were questions like, ‘Should I have rebuilt or just went and bought another house?’” she said. “A majority of the people were making great decisions, or at least the best decisions they know how to make. But there are others who keep you up at night worrying about them.”

Homeowners who received grants from FEMA aren’t required to repay the tax-free assistance, but they were tasked to ensure funds were only spent on disaster-related expenses.

“It’s tempting to use the assistance money to pay your most pressing bills, but stop and think before you spend that money on anything that's not disaster-related,” said Jeff Byard, state coordinating officer for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency in a press release.

Alabamians received their assistance checks either by mail or through direct deposit to their banks. Each person who received a payment also received a letter listing the types of expenses for which the payment can be used. Those who received money were asked to keep receipts and bills for up to three years to demonstrate how the money was spent.

FEMA grants were broken into two main categories — housing assistance and other needs assistance. Housing assistance grants could be used only for short-term rental assistance, reimbursement for hotel/motel rooms and home repair. Other needs assistance grants could only be used to help replace essential personal property and meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other federal, state and charitable-aid programs.

Community response

McFarlen said the fact that so many civic and faith-based agencies pulled together following the tornado disaster made it easier on impacted residents.

The United Way formed a recovery committee, made up of heads of several agencies, as a means of organizing volunteer and financial resources. The committee also opened a warehouse on U.S. 31 to provide household goods to those who had lost everything in the storm. The volunteer-run warehouse continues to be open on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

McFarlen credited the organizations that participated for putting the needs of the community first, as opposed to the needs of their individual organizations.

“The people of Limestone County put boots on the ground immediately and began to work with each other as we went through the process,” she said. “Our recovery is much further along than some of our neighboring counties because of the leadership and willingness of people to put themselves in place.”