First Chicago flood disaster recovery center opens in Austin

September 2, 2010
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Chicago’s first disaster recovery center opened its doors in Austin Wednesday, drawing a crowd of local residents hoping to receive federal money to help them bounce back from the late July storms that devastated homes in seven counties.

Some 75 people waited outside the center’s doors when it opened at 9 a.m., officials said. Some of them had been standing there since 5 a.m.

A security guard said many of those early-morning aid-seekers were mistakenly lined up for food stamps that were being distributed to flood victims at another location – not by FEMA, but by the Illinois Department of Human Services. That assistance, known as the Disaster SNAP Program, made news reports this week for drawing huge lines and disgruntled crowds.

Still, by 1 p.m. on the first day of the operation, about 100 residents had registered to have their homes inspected, hoping they might qualify for grants or loans, said FEMA spokesman Chuck Jackson. That’s in addition to the 40,000 Illinoisa residents who had already registered for aid.

The turnout is evidence of a community that is “hurting,” Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) told a crowd of reporters. The alderman said she is hearing from many constituents who lost “30 years of belongings” when their basements flooded July 23-24.

“Most of the residents in this community live in their basements,” Mitts said. “Some are sleeping in cars. Some don’t have food to eat …  People are hurting.”

Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) also addressed the crowd, commending President Barack Obama for his speedy response in declaring Cook County a disaster zone Aug. 19 and ensuring residents that the “candles (of relief) have been lit and they are burning brightly.”

Federal grant money is available to residents to make their homes “safe, sanitary and functional,” said FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Greg Eaton.

“Not back to pre-disaster conditions,” he cautioned, perhaps managing expectations of large checks by some residents. “But safe, sanitary and functional.”

In addition to grants, residents may also apply for low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration – whether or not they own a business, said SBA spokesman Michael Peacock. Homeowners can be eligible for as much as $200,000 in loans for property damage, plus $40,000 for personal belongings; renters can qualify for $40,000. Interest rates are as low as 2.5 percent and are granted for periods up to 30 years.

Businesses and non-profits qualify for loans up to $2 million, Peacock said.

Once residents register with FEMA or the SBA, an inspector is sent to their homes to assess the damage, and finally a letter is sent informing them of their grant amount, if they qualify.

A FEMA inspector had already been out to Almaya Morgan’s Kenneth Avenue apartment when she arrived at the disaster center Wednesday afternoon to check the status of her application.

The 29-year-old said her basement apartment got “really jacked up” in the flood; with her floors buckled and walls black with mold, she and her 10-year-old daughter have been staying with friends since the storm.

“We lost all our stuff. Everything,” Morgan said, confident she would receive some grant money.

She decided to go back inside to apply for an SBA loan, however.

The disaster center – located at 4905 W. North Ave. in a vacant shopping center storefront that used to house an Old Navy – will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week, until further notice.

Residents can also register for aid by phone at 1-800-621-FEMA or online at www.disasterassistance.gov.

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