Katrina +5: SBA, Taken by Surprise, Unprepared to Quickly Offer Aid

Businesses most prepared for rainy days most likely to succeed

When Katrina struck, SBA was in the middle of a transformation that included an internal reorganization, and a major computer system upgrade. Only 800 people could be on the new computer system at a time, so SBA had to incorporate shifts. Now 10,000 people can be on the system at once. The disaster loan processing system, which was located in Fort Worth, Texas, could accommodate only 366 seats; it has since been built up to accommodate 2100. There also are three different ways people can apply for disaster loans: electronically, by mail, or in person. Rivera added that the agency has substantially cut the amount of time it takes to process applications. In response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the SBA disbursed in Louisiana 9,492 business physical disaster loans, economic injury disaster loans and loans to nonprofits for a total of $868,8 million.

Norman Roussell, founder of Capital Access Project, Inc., a nonprofit entrepreneur and economic development program, said that the federal government needs to do a better job of recognizing that following a disaster, small business recovery efforts needs to be given greater priority.

“In the beginning most of their recovery efforts ignored small businesses and they didn’t understand fully the economic impact that those businesses have on the overall recovery of neighborhoods and communities,” Roussell said. Some businesses, Roussell said, had made the mistake of minimizing their tax burdens, which in turn caused loan officers to say they didn’t earn enough income to justify loan payments, which forced them out of business. Others that were able to meet loan requirements weren’t able to borrow enough to completely rebuild.

According to Robin Keegan, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state began running a $9-$10-billion bridge loan program immediately after the storm that initially offered $25,000 grants with 0% interest loans, later increased to $100,000. “After about a year and a half, we programmed $138 million into a grant and loan program because we realized that SBA had really not helped the most disadvantaged businesses across the state and those most hurt by the storm,” Keegan said.

The new program offered businesses grants of up to $20,000 and they also were eligible to take out a 0% interest loan that could be used to pay down other debt or for working capital and inventory needed to restart. “The only eligible businesses were those that were in business before the storm that intended to reopen their businesses following the storm,” Keegan said.

Thanks to business income insurance and personal savings, the Moores and Kaigler were able to hang on until they were back in business, spending the interim period on cleanup and minor repairs so that when that time finally came, they’d be ready.  They also received a $10,000 grant from Idea Village and a $20,000 grant from the state
Today, the business has almost completely recovered financially, but finding qualified workers continues to be an issue. “A lot of workers have left and not returned,” Moore laments. “The 9th Ward was the backbone for hotel and restaurant workers, but they have nowhere to live and are scattered across the country.”

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