As residents and businesses throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions face the fury of Hurricane Sandy, the federal government’s national disaster assistance operation is ramping up to deal with a flood of phone calls expected to pour into the program’s Buffalo service center.
Managers of the Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center, 130 S. Elmwood Ave., are “watching the storm very closely” in anticipation of having to bring in reserve staff and extend hours, said Colleen M. Hiam, deputy director of the center, which is run by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The facility has up to 125 reserve staff members who can be called upon to handle calls, and can stay open longer, for seven days a week if necessary, Hiam said. As of Monday afternoon, the center had 80 employees working, of which 20 are from its reserve staff.
“At this point, we’re making sure we’re ready for any surge in calls or emails,” Hiam said. “More than likely, we will end up activating more of our reserve staff and will have to provide some training before they hit the floor.”
The disaster assistance program provides low-interest emergency loans to homeowners, renters and nonfarm small businesses in the wake of a disaster, once a disaster declaration has been approved for their geographic area and the applicant has registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although the program is administered by the SBA, about 80 percent of the loans are for homeowners or renters, while the rest are for businesses.
Specifically, the program offers loans of up to $200,000 to rebuild homes or up to $40,000 to repair or replace property, and also provides up to $2 million to businesses or nonprofit organizations to rebuild or replace property or for working capital. The interest rate is usually 4 percent or less, for up to 30 years.
The Buffalo operation, which relocated downtown several years ago from its longtime home in Niagara Falls, takes calls from residents and businesses affected by disasters across the country. Applications for loans are processed by a separate facility in Atlanta.
Currently, the facility is handling about 750 calls a day, mostly from people or businesses affected by Hurricane Isaac that hammered Louisiana and Mississippi in late August, Hiam said. The staff has fielded “relatively few calls” about Sandy, she said, “but that will change.”
She noted that “at this point, all indications are the storm will be much bigger” than Hurricanes Irene and Lee, which hit the East Coast a year ago, and led to about 30,000 calls for the disaster center.
For more information about the disaster program, call (800) 659-2955 or go online to www.sba.gov or http://disaster safety.org.