Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New aid for TN

• $28 million begins influx of dollars • Delay on home foreclosures ordered • More counties eligible for U.S. aid By Michael Cass • THE TENNESSEAN • May 11, 2010 Tennessee's floods intensified Monday as two Cabinet secretaries came to Nashville, 250 emergency management workers put boots on the ground around the state and millions of additional aid dollars started flowing to individuals and families. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency added 15 counties to the list of places where workers are eligible for disaster unemployment benefits, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it had put a moratorium on foreclosures for 90 days in flooded areas. FEMA plans to open two more disaster recovery centers in Nashville on Wednesday, while the head of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which handles low-interest loans for homeowners and businesses affected by disaster, will visit to open an assistance center downtown today. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said it's critical that federal agencies react to the crisis as effectively as local and state governments and other organizations did. "Now the challenge is to make sure that our government has the best response," Cooper said at a news conference with Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development, and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "I think we're seeing that. The mayor and the governor have done an awesome job. "Now it's time for the federal government to step up." As of Monday, FEMA had registered 18,000 Tennessee residents, inspected more than 4,000 buildings and awarded more than $28 million in assistance, officials said. That was up from 650 buildings and $4.1 million in aid that had been approved when U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Nashville on Saturday morning. The agency has 250 staff in the state now, according to operations branch director Donna Weise. "We're here to stay," Weise said. Mayor Karl Dean said the floods had done $1.56 billion in damage to private property in Nashville, based on an assessment that was 99 percent complete by midafternoon. Nashville is still assessing the damage to its roads, bridges and public facilities, Dean said. An estimate of the total damage statewide is not available yet. Jeremy Heidt, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said coming up with a number actually isn't a high priority right now. "The reality of it is, it's going to be a while before there's anything concrete," he said. Heidt said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate was able to see enough damage from a helicopter early last week to obtain a presidential disaster declaration without putting together formal estimates. With 52 counties affected, and 42 now in the official disaster area, emergency management workers are focused on getting assistance centers up and helping areas where water infrastructure was damaged, Heidt said. "With tornadoes, the damage is so localized and so very specific in one area, it's very easy to do a damage assessment. With this one, the damage is so, so vast. It's so widespread." Businesses to get aid Two days after Napolitano saw flood recovery efforts firsthand, Donovan and Locke toured Metro's Emergency Operations Center and visited several downtown businesses that were deluged by the overflowing Cumberland River. At Trail West, a hat and boot shop on Second Avenue South, owner Ed Smith and manager Gary Whittenberg greeted the Cabinet members, as well as Cooper and Dean, near the door. Behind them lay a floor pocked with loose boards. "So what do you have to do to get back in operation?" Locke asked. "We are in operation," Smith replied. "We brought everybody in, we went up, checked our inventory. We lost about a third of it. But we dried that third up. We're going to put it on the back wall, we're going to mark it down, we're going to present it to our customers at a discount." "That's the attitude," Dean said. Later, Locke told reporters the federal government was "not going to wait until all the damage is cleaned up" to start helping business owners with loans and other forms of assistance. "We want businesses to be strong, because they hire people," said Locke, a former governor of Washington. Donovan said the moratorium on foreclosures by Federal Housing Administration lenders, which took effect Wednesday, was the right thing to do. "It is simply wrong for a family struck by a natural disaster like we've seen here in Nashville and across Tennessee to be victimized again by a foreclosure because they can't make their payments," he said. Insured FHA loans also are available to help families rebuild, Donovan said. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also will work with housing agencies in Metro and other counties to redirect funding to flood recovery, including $29 million in community development block grants. Donovan said almost $9 million could be redirected to Nashville alone — and $17 million statewide — through another HUD program. More trash haulers hired Some homeowners started to get a bit more relief from the piles of debris outside their houses and in their neighborhoods Monday. Metro entered into emergency contracts with two Alabama-based companies that specialize in hauling trash away from disaster areas, Public Works Director Billy Lynch said. Storm Reconstruction Services Inc. and The DRC Group will work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week until all the trash is removed, Lynch said. Public Works' own trucks, which are not nearly as large as the private haulers' vehicles, also continue to work on the cleanup. Dean said he signed an executive order extending a Metro state of emergency by one week to allow for emergency contracts and greater flexibility in responding to the disaster. Metro also got what Dean called a bit of a return to normalcy as schools reopened after a week when floodwaters and transportation logistics kept them closed. Fred Carr, a top school district official, said attendance was less than 1 percentage point below where it stood the week before the flood, and fewer teachers were absent Monday than at the same time last year. Carr said the district sustained about $1.6 million in damage. Donovan said local governments, which provide basic services and have the closest connection to citizens, are the key players in disaster recovery. But the federal government can help. "We are here standing behind local leadership," he said.

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