FEMA Faulted for Flood Effort at D.C. Hearing

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Senators joined victims of massive floods in Louisiana in praising the Small Business Administration Thursday for its work providing loans during the recovery, but criticized FEMA for poor communication and a lack of accountability in responding to the disaster.
     At a hearing Thursday morning before the Senate Small Business Committee Sen. David Vitter said the agency got field offices set up as soon as possible after a storm dumped 30 inches of rain in 36 hours last month, and that likely saved some small businesses that would not have survived being shut down for an extended period.
     In some cases the Small Business Administration had its business recovery centers set up more quickly than FEMA had theirs up and running, Vitter said.
     SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said new online applications and a streamlined process that puts homeowners, businesses and people with outstanding credit ratings into separate lines have helped her agency’s response.
     She also pointed to programs that allow loan applicants to track their progress as helpful for the agency’s efforts.
     “When the rains hit Louisiana in August, we implemented many of these advancements and improvements, for example, this meant that we didn’t have to wait for the water to go down before rolling up our sleeves and getting to work,” Contreras-Sweet said.
     Vitter said FEMA’s early work on the disaster has been “sound,” though he did criticize FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate for not attending the hearing despite Vitter’s invitation.
     Louisiana State Rep. Clay Schexnayder, who testified at the hearing, said FEMA told him it would not be participating in his committee meetings going forward either.
     “They haven’t reached out to us, they haven’t reached out to these people,” Schexnayder said.
     He was particularly critical of FEMA’s response to the floods, saying he has not received water and food for more than a week in his flood-ravaged district and that some residents have still not gotten the full assistance they can receive from the agency.
     Schexnayder told the committee that after a day spent in the floods helping rescue efforts he caught a glimpse of the street corner where his business, Car Craft Automotive, was located, and “was overwhelmed with emotion.”
     “I had been so busy helping others that I hadn’t realized I was in the same boat as them,” Schexnayder told the committee, which for most of the hearing consisted solely of Vitter and fellow Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy. “All my equipment, my shop destroyed, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in parts, stock, computers, all my records and documents. And I worry about my workers now and their homes and their houses and their families and how they will be affected.”
     While the message to Contreras-Sweet Thursday was largely one of thanks and praise, one witness did criticize the agency for not providing loans at a low enough interest rate to help business owners recover.
     Ron Erickson, a representative from the Chamber of Commerce for the city of Central, La., told the committee the loans put too much of a stress on the business owners who apply for them.
     “To many of our business owners, a loan is not an emergency assistance, especially when you have to look at a loan of 4 percent or 6.2 percent, the question being asked is why couldn’t we get a loan for zero percent,” Erickson said. “We’re at the point where they look at the possibility of having to obtain a loan as just an additional financial burden on them.”
     Especially in a community where many shops operate out of homes instead of an office park, some small businesses already have financial obligations that prevent them accepting new loans with new interest to pay.
     But aid beyond the SBA loans and FEMA aid could be coming to Louisiana as soon as next week.
     On Wednesday night the White House sent a letter to members of Congress asking them to set aside an additional $2.6 billion in Community Development Block Grant funds to help in the recovery, Vitter said.
     After the hearing Cassidy said lawmakers are “pushing” to get this funding included in the upcoming continuing resolution that would fund the government into December.
     The continuing resolution was set to be voted on this week, but Thursday the Senate agreed to push a vote to proceed to the measure until Monday evening.
     Cassidy would not say he was optimistic about the funding getting into the measure, but insisted he wasn’t pessimistic about its chances either.

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