Time running out for storm-relief applicants, officials warn
By Kirk Lang
Three weeks after Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc on Fairfield's beaches and wide swaths of the Connecticut coast, many people are still looking for help with damages inflicted by the storm. Severely damaged homes remain unrepaired, and businesses that lost supplies and equipment to power outages and flooding have yet to recover.
But time has not run out on grant and loan opportunities, according to representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration, who spoke Friday morning at U.S. Rep. Jim Himes' Flood Advisory Committee meeting, held at the emergency operations center in Fairfield Police Department headquarters.
The deadline to apply is Nov. 3.
Himes told the meeting that he is hopeful as much as $6 billion in FEMA funding for emergency relief -- including help for damage caused by Irene and the wildfires in Texas -- will be approved soon. "It passed in the Senate. It hasn't passed in the House," he said.
Joining Himes at the session were representatives from the Department of Transportation and the South Western Regional Planning Agency, area fire chiefs, Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara, Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, Bob Kenney, the Region 1 coordinator of the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, and members of neighborhood associations from Bridgeport to Norwalk.
While the maximum amount of aid that may become available is not yet known, state residents are being encouraged to apply for assistance now. Sally Mackert, a public information officer for FEMA, said homeowners and renters are eligible for as much as $30,200 in grants.
And, in many cases, those who fill out an application for FEMA assistance will also be sent an application for an SBA loan.
SBA can provide up to $200,000 to homeowners and renters, according to SBA public affairs specialist Tom Nocera, as well as $40,000 for personal property. A business, meanwhile, can be loaned up to $2 million.
The application process starts by registering with FEMA, according to Mackert, and there are three ways to do that: phone (1-860-621-FEMA), online (www.disasterassistance.gov) and smart phone text (m.fema.gov). Applicants will then be contacted by an inspector to arrange an on-site visit. Once the inspector visits and assesses the damage and loss, a report will be submitted and the applicant will subsequently receive a letter indicating approval or denial, or whether more information is needed from the applicant. Applicants are encouraged to document expenses incurred -- receipts, etc. -- as well as taking photos of damage.
"All of that is helpful to the inspector," Mackert said. If storm damage have forced applicants from their home and incur hotel expenses, that also is a cost that can be covered by FEMA.
Mackert said some property owners often pre-judge their eligibility, thinking their damage wasn't significant enough to qualify for assistance. "Register with us and we'll make those determinations," she said.
As far as applications for SBA loans, Nocera said people are often misled by the "B" in SBA, which stands for "business." However, SBA provides federal disaster loans for homeowners and renters as well as for businesses.
In fact, "in terms of disasters, the SBA will help many more homeowners and renters than they do businesses," he said.
The interest rate on SBA loans for homeowners can be as low as 2.5 percent and as low as 4 percent for businesses. Also, the first payment on a loan can often be deferred up to five or six months, according to Nocera.
Victims of Tropical Storm Irene can also visit any of the FEMA disaster recovery centers located throughout the state. The center closest to the Fairfield/Westport area is in Greenwich at the Western Greenwich Civic Center, 449 Pemberwick Road.
"You don't have to visit, but you can talk with an expert, sit down face-to-face and pose concerns," said Mackert, who added that many people are visiting the centers without first having registered for FEMA money. Also, "people seem to assume that if they've called their NFIP people (National Flood Insurance Program) people, they're registered."
FEMA grants don't duplicate anything already covered by insurance (homeowner insurance, NFIP coverage or others) but those with flood insurance may still be eligible for some sort of FEMA help, according to Mackert.
"You should still register," she said.
Members of two different village associations that suffered severe flooding from Irene -- one in Norwalk, the other in Bridgeport -- described to Himes the losses inflected by the storm.
Lydia Silvas, of Seaside Village, just north of the shoreline Seaside Park in Bridgeport, said firefighters were able to get to stranded residents only by canoe. She said the units' basements were filled with several feet of water, triggering a fire in her home. She pleaded for assistance to have the utility boxes raised.
Norwalk resident Bob Wagman, a member of the Five Mile River Association in Norwalk, asked if FEMA could take corrective action on that river's flooding to prevent similar problems in the future.
"Long-term geographic mitigation is really the Army Corps of Engineers," Himes said.
Before Friday's session ended, Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid asked if there is a way to better spread the word about the financial assistance that people can take advantage of.
Nocera said every public official, whenever they are out and about, should remind residents to register for disaster assistance.
"There's a 60-day window from the federal government," he said. The deadline, Nocera reiterated, is Nov. 3.