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Saturday, July 26, 2014

County must clear hurdles to get federal disaster aid

By Deb Gruver
The Wichita Eagle

The first wave of federal help for homeowners cursing Saturday’s mile-wide tornado could come from what seems an unlikely source: the U.S. Small Business Administration.

If Sedgwick County meets federal guidelines — and officials are still doing the math — the SBA could make low-interest loans to residents whose homes were ripped apart.

SBA loans can kick in if at least 25 or more homes in the county sustained uninsured losses of 40 percent or more. Residents could use loan money to repair homes or replace personal property. Even though the SBA would front the loans, residents don’t have to be business owners.

Emergency management director Randy Duncan wasn’t making predictions Tuesday about whether federal assistance would be available except to say “we are confident that we are going to make that first step with SBA loans.”

Other levels of federal assistance have other requirements. Duncan took a few minutes out of a hectic Tuesday to explain how it works.

“There are two major federal programs,” he explained. “One is called public assistance. That is aid to units of local government. The other is individual assistance. That is aid to persons, to homeowners.”

He used a stream analogy to explain. “Each of these branches (of assistance) turns on with a different spigot.”

After SBA loans, the next level of help for county residents would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That could include loans or grants to help with housing, repairs and cleanup costs.

To get that help, the county must show proof of damage to 250 or more houses with uninsured losses of 40 percent or more.

Staff members from the county’s appraiser’s office are “going out on a parcel-by-parcel and house-by-house basis translating that into dollar values. We will share that with our state and federal colleagues,” Duncan said.

Initial reports indicated damage to fewer than 250 houses: More than 90 mobile homes sustained damage of more than 50 percent. Six other homes in the county were reported destroyed, three were damaged, and a condominium was damaged.

Aid calculations

The county has to clear two hurdles to get federal assistance for public infrastructure — such as roadways, traffic lights and city or county buildings — damaged by the twister.

The county must show damage of more than $3.27 per resident. Debris removal by city or county government can count toward that figure, Duncan said.

What does that mean for Sedgwick County?

The 2010 U.S. Census pegged the county’s population at 498,365. That means the damage threshold is more than $1.6 million — $1,629,654, to be exact.

But wait, there’s more.

The state also must meet a damage threshold.

The state must be able to show damage of more than $1.30 per person. The latest Census showed 2,853,118 Kansans. That means the state must be able to prove $3,709,053 in damage.

Here’s the rub: If the county meets its threshold but the state doesn’t, the county can’t qualify for federal assistance.

“Both of those thresholds have to be exceeded” for federal assistance to become available, Duncan said.

Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General’s Department, said it likely will be next week “before we have a good picture on the public assistance” for infrastructure.

“It possibly will be later this week for the individual assistance program,” she said. “It’s a time-consuming process.”

Each of the 39 counties in Gov. Sam Brownback’s disaster declaration will do its own damage assessment.

“The state looks over those assessments,” Watson said. “We will send out state staff to work with Sedgwick County. In some of the counties that didn’t have much damage, we’ll use the information the counties provided.”

The governor would have to request a federal disaster declaration.

Duncan said he’s seen federal declarations occur as quickly as 24 hours after a disaster and as long as 90 days after a disaster.

For people asking “How can I get help right now, probably the best place to go is their homeowners insurance. They can plug into the United Way, American Red Cross and Salvation Army, too,” he said.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Skelton, who represents Oaklawn, said he hopes to learn soon about whether federal assistance will be available.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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