Local News

Few seeking tornado recovery help

Posted May 16, 2011 11:57 a.m. EDT
Updated May 16, 2011 7:30 p.m. EDT

— A month after a swarm of tornadoes tore across eastern North Carolina, only a few hundred residents have completed the necessary paperwork to obtain federal recovery aid, officials said Monday.

Nineteen counties were declared disaster areas after the April 16 storms – the largest outbreak of tornadoes in state history – as businesses and homes in scores of neighborhoods were reduced to rubble.

"This wasn't just one disaster. It was 1,000 or more little, individual disasters," Doug Hoell, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, said Monday.

In Wake County, for example, at least 2,200 homes were damaged, while almost 580 homes and businesses had an estimated $50 million in damage in Lee County.

Only about 350 of the 4,300 people who received recovery assistance applications from the U.S. Small Business Administration have completed them, SBA representative Jack Camp said. The SBA provides low-interest loans to storm victims and helps qualify people for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster grants.

"The SBA loan application is the critical part of the process," Camp said. "I'm greatly concerned that many who need help may not get it. The disaster assistance process has several steps, and applicants for assistance need to complete all of the steps to be considered."

FEMA reimbursed Raleigh renter Maxine Tutu for some moving expenses after the tornado, but she said Monday that she had no clue she could get an SBA loan to help with her recovery.

"I know we didn't have a company, so I said, 'What good is it going to do us?' I didn't read (the application) to get into all the detail," Tutu said.

More than $9 million in disaster aid has been issued in North Carolina, including about $4 million in SBA loans, officials said.

FEMA workers have visited about 12,000 homes and 2,500 businesses to assess damage and assist with recovery, agency coordinating officer Mike Bolch said.

"FEMA funds will not make you whole after any disaster, but they will help you get back on your feet and provide the basic necessities for life," Bolch said.

Yet, many people complain about the confusing process to apply for help.

A tree slammed into the roof of the rental house in Raleigh where Suzie Jones lived with her daughters and grandchildren, and the electricity and water were knocked out.

Although Raleigh officials declared the home unsafe, FEMA twice rejected Jones' application for aid, saying there was insufficient damage.

"It would have been impossible for me to live there with a tree on the house and wires down," she said. "I would ask them, 'Could you stay in a home in this condition?'"

The family spent a week in a motel, and her landlord has temporarily put them up in another rental home.

"I know there's a lot of stress involved. We've got people trained to help manage that situation. We just need them to work with us," Bolch said.

Emily Young of the state Division of Emergency Management said people need to question FEMA if they don't understand or disagree with the answers they're given about aid.

"Sometimes no doesn't always mean no," Young said.

Storm victims must apply for recovery aid by June 20, she said. The application process starts with a call to 1-800-621-3362 or a visit to a FEMA field office.


View FEMA offices in a larger map

Homeowners can get loans of up to $240,000, renters can get up to $40,000 and business owners are eligible for up to $2 million under the federal program.

"Don't be afraid. We're here to help you. It's a step in the process. You have to complete that step in the process," she said.

Insurance claims process slow

For those with homeowners insurance, the process isn't much easier.

"Things have moved very, very slowly," said Ben Falk, whose east Raleigh home was hit by a tree during the storm. "Getting a roof replaced costs a lot more money than they gave me. Also, some of the interior work where there's water damage on the Sheetrock, they just want to paint over it instead of cutting it out and replacing it, which, of course, allows for mold growth and other things."

Tim Williams, who owns a roofing company, said storm recovery has been slower than anticipated for contractors as well.

"If the insurance company were acting on time, there would be a whole lot more construction going on. I got guys sitting at home. I got plenty of people wanting to work," Williams said, noting that he's provided estimates to repair damage at 30 homes.

A representative for State Farm Insurance said the company's goal is to get at least a partial payment for a majority of its claims out to policyholders within four to six weeks of the storm.

Danny Bonds said he got a $35,000 check from his insurance company, but contractors have said he has more than $100,000 in damage to his home.

"I'm just sitting there because I can't do anything with it," Bonds said of the claim check. "Give me what I need so I can get back in my house. I don't want to stay in an apartment. I want to live in my home."

Matt Leary said Bank of America held up his repairs, demanding various reports and estimates before releasing his claim check.

"It's a huge hurdle," Falk said of the bureaucracy. "The faster I can get approved, the faster I can get going. The contractors aren't going to start if they're not going to get the money."

Benefit concert scheduled

Raleigh has scheduled a June 3 concert at the downtown amphitheater to raise money for tornado relief.

Eleven bands will perform during the Rise Up Raleigh event. Donations of $20 to $100 will be collected at the gate, and all proceeds will go to the recovery efforts of the Salvation Army of Wake County, Helping Hands Mission, the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Centro Internacional de Raleigh.

"The tornado hit a fairly small area of town, but the people were really hit badly, including a lot of low-income people," Mayor Charles Meeker said. "These folks need help with the basics – food, clothing and things like that – and that's what this (concert) is meant to do."