Joplin Globe
5/2/04 - Year later, rebuilding still

Storms' victims findpromised help similar to May 4 tornadoes:a lot of hit and miss

By Andy Ostmeyer

Globe Staff Writer


PIERCE CITY, Mo. - Like a lot of tornado victims, Tom Fye, of Pierce City, turned to FEMA for help rebuilding after the May 4 disaster last year.

"I am disappointed. Very disappointed," he said when asked about the assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"They gave me $500 for the car," he said. "They didn't give me anything for the house."

His mother's house, a block from the business district, which was hit by the storm, still has plywood over one of the holes punched in a wall by flying debris. Black plastic covers another hole. Fye said the garage was made unsafe by the storm, but he can't afford to tear it down. He also said he could not get a Small Business Administration loan for the damages.

"No damn way it's good enough," he said of the government's response.

But 40 miles away, Randy and Shelly Holden, of Carl Junction, couldn't be happier with FEMA.

"We did fine because FEMA picked up and helped with what they could. ... More than I could ever ask," Shelly Holden said.

FEMA provided the family with a trailer home on Hunter Road that is as nice as the trailer home they had before the storm. The agency also picked up many other costs for the family.

Two other FEMA trailers stood nearby for a while, housing other storm victims. One has since been moved.

"They helped the whole way," Randy Holden said. "We didn't have any problems whatsoever. FEMA has treated us so well. ... I don't know what we would do without FEMA."

Same storms. Same federal agency. Yet, the experiences Fye and the Holdens had couldn't be more different. For some, federal help was a godsend; for others, it was too little, or came with too many strings and too much paperwork.

Today, in Franklin, Kan., Stockton, Carl Junction, Pierce City and Smithfield, the work of rebuilding continues. In more than one town, smoke from piles of burning debris could be seen rising this spring against the backdrop of wrecked trees and the skeletal frames of new homes being built.

In the immediate aftermath of the storms, the promises of help were there, but the reality is, like the May 4 twisters themselves, a lot of hit and miss.

Worst of its kind

The tornado outbreak in early May of last year was the most severe of its kind ever. There were 393 tornadoes in one week around the country, which more than doubled the previous record, according to the National Weather Service. Ninety-four of those tornadoes were reported on a single day: May 4.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the twisters, which resulted in dozens of deaths, caused more than $3 billion in damages, making it the most expensive tornado outbreak in history, although it was not the deadliest. Much of the damage was concentrated in Kansas and Missouri.

But while there was frustration and even disappointment with federal aid, a Globe analysis of FEMA's and the SBA's responses to the disaster found:

The average SBA loan was as great, if not greater, than the typical loan made in many other severe disasters, including other tornadoes, such as the one that hit Oklahoma City a few years ago.

The rejection rate on the SBA loans was much lower for the May 4 storms than it was for other disasters.

Promises by FEMA to help homeowners with uninsured and underinsured damages translated into a typical grant of around $1,300 in Missouri and $1,700 in Kansas. Most of FEMA's assistance - more than two of every three dollars - went to cities for public losses and costs involved with emergency personnel, cleanup and rebuilding. FEMA gave $15.6 million to Missouri communities and $8.8 million to Kansas communities.

While the average FEMA grant wasn't a lot, given the magnitude of some residents' losses, FEMA brought in 63 trailers in the four communities that were hit hardest, and in at least three local cases it sold those homes to the occupants for as little as $20.

Two inches thick

In the weeks and even months after the storm, Pierce City business owners, such as Fern Weston, and Lynette and Scott Rector, looked to the SBA for help rebuilding. The agency was promising disaster-assistance loans of 2.8 and 2.9 percent with terms of up to 30 years, beating by a couple of percentage points or more the rates offered by commercial banks.

Weston, owner of a bar called Fern's, borrowed more than $118,000 through the SBA. Her business was one of the first to reopen in a town that still has large holes in its business district, left after the tornado threw down or wrecked multistory 19th-century limestone buildings.

"SBA has been wonderful," Weston said.

The Rectors, owners of Freda Mae's, a restaurant, gift shop and antique store, borrowed nearly $300,000 to cover business losses and the loss of their home - an old Catholic church in Pierce City that they were restoring. Their SBA loan file was two inches thick when all was said and done, Lynette Rector said.

She also said the couple had to file and refile some of the paperwork several times.

"When I was going through it, I thought it was a headache," she said. "Basically we had gone through so much that trying to figure out paperwork was overwhelming, but they were always there to answer any question I had. They had people who walked me through it."

It helped, too, that there were so many federal workers in town after the storm.

"They practically lived here," she said. "I even cooked for them."

Average SBA loan

According to a Globe analysis, the SBA made 40 loans valued at a total of $2,167,700 to Pierce City residents after the May 4 tornado. That's an average loan of $54,193.

That's similar to the average loan in Stockton, of $53,303 (for 72 loans valued at $3,837,800) and in Franklin, of $54,926 (for 23 loans valued at $1,263,300).

In Carl Junction, the SBA loaned $1,985,800 to 59 home and business owners, for an average of $33,658.

The SBA average compares favorably with other tornado disasters, such as the Oklahoma City storm in 1999, when the average of 1,746 loans was $48,019 when adjusted for inflation. The average loan in the two Fort Worth tornadoes of March 2000 (adjusted for inflation) came to $53,138, for 131 loans. Fort Worth is the home of the SBA disaster office.

The amount the SBA loaned in this disaster also compares favorably with SBA loans made for the most expensive hurricane and most expensive flood the country has ever seen.

The average loan for Hurricane Andrew, in 1992 (adjusted for inflation), came to $35,085 for nearly 26,000 loans. The average loan made for the Midwest floods of 1993 came to $39,941 in current dollars. There were nearly 20,000 loans made during and after that disaster.

Not only did the loans compare favorably, but a bigger percentage of residents received them.

Michael Lampton, public affairs officer for the SBA's disaster office in Fort Worth, said the rejection rate on SBA loans in Missouri, where 870 loans were made, was 32 percent. The rejection rate in Kansas, where 252 loans were made, was 29 percent.

The rejection rate for the Oklahoma City tornado in 1999 was 42 percent, and for the Fort Worth tornadoes it came to 59 percent. The rejection rate for hurricane and flood disasters is usually above 40 percent.

Lampton said the "rejection" rate is a broad term, and includes not only those who were ineligible for the loan but also those who withdrew from the process. Some people apply for a loan immediately after a disaster but cancel when the insurance is settled. Others get frustrated with the paperwork.

Such was the case with members of the Carl Junction First United Methodist Church.

On Sunday evening, May 4, much of what had been the church was strewn across school grounds and entangled with trees and Cyclone fences. The white steeple was toppled against the backdrop formed by a blackened sky.

Tony Blevins, pastor of the church, said some volunteers spent six weeks on an SBA application after the church was destroyed but eventually abandoned that in favor of a commercial loan.

"It got to be so bothersome, and rates were so low at the bank ... rather than jump through hoop after hoop. ... It was a very involved process," he said.

But more often, rejection has to do with an applicant's bad credit or other problems. People who have a felony conviction, who have missed their tax payments or who have defaulted on a previous federal loan, such as a school loan, are also turned down.

Fye, of Pierce City, was one of those turned away when he asked about an SBA loan for his mother's home.

At age 65, with health problems, he said he didn't make enough to repay the loan, and admits, "I got bad credit."

Yet, he wonders what residents like him are to do.

"Anybody who is working-class deserves it," he said of the loans.

He pointed to the steeple of the nearby Catholic church, where President Bush met with local residents after the storm "and told everybody that they would be taken care of fairly," Fye said. He doesn't think that promise was fulfilled.

"All we wanted was enough to take care of getting our house fixed," he said.

Strict rules

Jayne Cooper, of Franklin, Kan., did receive an SBA loan - in her case, $43,300, which she used for a modular home to replace the 60-year-old home that was destroyed May 4.

"It was pretty easy to apply for," she said, even though she did have to run down a lot of paperwork.

However, the SBA determines how the money will be spent, allocating so much for the roof, for example, and so much for the porch. She said she couldn't move the money around, spending more here and less there.

"The figures weren't unreasonable, but I didn't feel that they were willing to bend," she said of the SBA guidelines.

Her neighbor, Annabelle Jones, who has also rebuilt, discovered the same thing and decided not to apply for SBA help.

"You could only use the money for certain things. We read the fine print and it was like it was more their house than ours."

Cooper is glad the SBA was there to help, and like most others, she received her money quickly. Lampton, with the SBA, said the average turnaround time on SBA loans was 21 days.

But Cooper said she would seek a commercial bank loan if hit in a future disaster.

"They were pretty good," she said of the SBA, "but I don't know - if something ever happened again - if I would use them again."

Lampton said he understands the frustration when applicants discover limitations on the money, but he said the program is designed for disaster assistance, not improvement projects.

"We have to get that property back to the point it was before the disaster," he said. "The money from Congress is set aside specifically for that."

Asked about frustration with paperwork, Lampton said: "What we normally ask for are documents that you routinely have."

Stockton resident Ruth Noblett said the SBA was helpful. She and her husband, Ken, owned a restaurant, the Squeeze Inn, that was leveled in the disaster.

"When we did get the paperwork, it was voluminous," she said, stretching her fingers three or four inches apart. "But if you know how to read, you can do it."

The couple, borrowing more than $70,000 to reopen their restaurant in a new location, are happy with the SBA.

"We found the SBA to be extremely helpful," she said. "They walked us through it. One day my husband had eight conversations with the people helping us."

FEMA

In the aftermath of the storm, the one agency on the forefront of assistance was FEMA.

Asked about her experience with FEMA, Alice Baldwin, of Franklin, said: "It was such a nightmare."

It didn't start off that way.

"They walked through here and signed us up that first day," she recalled. Her house was gone, so she moved in with her daughter just across the state line in Liberal, Mo., hoping FEMA would soon provide a temporary trailer so she could get back to Franklin. Her luck with FEMA ran out on the telephone.

"Every time I called I got a different person," Baldwin said. "I probably talked to 15 or 16 people and never talked to the same person twice."

At one point, they thought she was living in Liberal, Kan., a town in the southwest corner of the state, and told her she was ineligible for help.

Because she ran into problems with FEMA, she said, she was delayed in moving back, and during that time, cleanup crews with heavy equipment further damaged what was left of her property. They ruined the concrete pad for her home by constantly driving over it, she said. The heavy equipment also collapsed her septic tank, and she had to replace it before FEMA would move in a trailer for her to live in, she said.

She doesn't think that would have happened had she been able to get a trailer quickly.

"The FEMA people I dealt with personally (on site in Franklin) were very nice. The people over the phone, it was just terrible to get anything done. They had no idea who I was or where I was. They couldn't find my case half the time."

It took FEMA two months to bring in a trailer for Baldwin, and she thinks she only got it because she dogged them regularly. Today, sitting in her new home, watching her grandchildren, she said: "They need a better system of tracking people."

Told that others received FEMA assistance quickly, and at no cost, Baldwin said: "That's a sore point with me. When you are a responsible person and keep insurance, you don't get help. You work your butt off and keep insurance and you get no help."

While FEMA brought in trailers for some and sold them for as little as $20, she said that was not the case for her.

"My insurance reimbursed them for the rent. I think it was $360 to $380 a month."

Crystal Payton, acting congressional liaison for FEMA Region 7, which includes Kansas and Missouri, said federal assistance "can't duplicate benefits," which means those who have insurance can't turn to FEMA for help with their losses.

But those who were uninsured, such as Christina and Rick Shepherd, of Stockton, found a lot of help available.

"I figured they would provide some shelter and give out food. I didn't think they would go as far as they did," Rick Shepherd said.

The Stockton home the couple were renting and their uninsured belongings were ripped away by the storm on May 4. The family was left with nothing.

"FEMA gave this to us to live in," she said of the mobile home where her family now lives. It is a used trailer that another family in Stockton had lived in before the storm. FEMA moved it to a location in town, and the Shepherds could have lived in it for up to 18 months rent-free, but they went ahead and bought it outright when they were given a deal.

"We bought it for $20," Christina Shepherd said.Payton, with FEMA, said two homes in Stockton and one in Carl Junction were sold for $20. FEMA sold 31 homes around the state, with the highest price running to more than $14,000. She said that she couldn't discuss individual sales, but that the sales were handled on a case-by-base basis.

"From FEMA's perspective, we don't want to leave anybody unhoused," she said.

She said FEMA has to weigh the occupant's ability to pay for the trailer against the agency's costs of freight, refurbishing and storing the trailer if it is taken back.

"We don't have much money," Christina Shepherd said.Rick Shepherd said FEMA also gave them $6,000 initially to replace items that had been damaged or destroyed. They had to give some of the money back when the trailer came furnished, Rick Shepherd said.

Asked for her assessment of FEMA, Shepherd replied: "They done us excellent. I am very happy with how they done us."

The $6,000 the couple initially received was well above the average FEMA grant in this area.

FEMA grants

FEMA gave about $2.5 million to 1,516 storm victims in Kansas, or an average grant of $1,658. The agency gave about $8.8 million to Missouri residents, or an average grant of $1,290 to 6,789 people.

Many area communities' residents got more than the average. For example, the average grant in Cherokee County, where 54 people received FEMA assistance, came to $2,257. In Lawrence County, where Pierce City is located, the average grant came to $2,167, for 575 people. In Cedar County, home of Stockton, it was an average of $1,464, for 706 people. In Jasper, it was $1,345, for 612 people. But in Greene County, where Battlefield was hit and 180 grants were awarded, the average grant was $627.

Payton said it is tough to compare disasters because FEMA's Individual and Homeowners Program, which awards the grants to homeowners, wasn't implemented until October 2002.

"Prior to that we had a different program with different parameters. They had different measurements, different caps, different criteria."

The only other major disaster in 2003, Hurricane Isabel, resulted in an average grant in Maryland, for example, of $1,756, according to Payton.

The real cost, however, was for uninsured public-sector damages and other emergency costs. Those came to $11.6 million for Kansas communities and $20.5 million in Missouri towns. FEMA, which can pick up 75 percent of those costs, gave $8.8 million to Kansas towns and $15.6 million to Missouri towns. The numbers, which are slightly above 75 percent, reflect an administration allowance that is also figured into each grant. That allowance ranges from 0.5 to 3 percent, depending on the grant.

The Holdens, of Carl Junction, were another couple who did well by FEMA. They were living in an uninsured trailer when the storm struck. They stayed in a hotel the first month, with FEMA picking up most of the cost. Shelly Holden said it was around $150 per week. The federal government also picked up two months of storage for the family's belongings and brought in a fully furnished trailer. The couple have been living in it rent-free since the storm, with an option to buy. Randy Holden said they are still negotiating the price.

He said they were ineligible for SBA money.

"Probably credit," he said when asked why they were turned down for a loan.

"I can't really complain because whatever help we didn't get (from SBA), FEMA stepped in."



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