On September 9, Janita Stewart suited up with a mask, protective gloves and rubber boots to survey the damage in-person at the Gulfport office she manages. She had been on the road before daybreak and wouldn’t return home until after dark, but she was on a necessary mission to salvage whatever she could.
Stewart, district director of the U.S. Small Business Administration in Jackson, had called public information officer Gary Reed at home two days before the hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast and asked him to secure the government agency’s computer equipment as best as he could.
Then described by meteorologists as a Category 5 storm, the hurricane jogged east from New Orleans just before making landfall, seemingly following Camille’s destructive path in 1969.
“We were so thrilled to see that, because of Gary’s actions, several thousand dollars’ worth of computer equipment might have been salvaged,” said Stewart. “We’ll have our technology specialist check it out on Monday, but we think it’s OK.”
Branch office gone
The SBA Gulfport branch office, located in BancorpSouth Plaza at 2909 13th Street, Suite 203, was destroyed, another victim of Hurricane Katrina, the Category 4 storm whose name origin is Greek, ironically meaning “pure, virginal.” She also demolished the SBA’s government vehicle.
“There’s a GSA vehicle on order on its way to us right now,” said Stewart. “And it’s never worked this fast before. Trust me. They broke I don’t know how many records working with us this time. Things have really gone much faster than we thought they would.”
Stewart said the government’s response was expedited “because this was such a tremendous disaster, and something had to be done quickly to get our branch office relocated and functioning again.”
“Of course, we’re already dealing with disasters and questions from all over the place in the district office. The problem was so big, they knew they needed to step up to the plate and take care of it, so they did,” she said.
A solid plan
Several years ago, Stewart crafted an SBA business interruption plan, and named two alternative work sites in the event of an emergency. “Our first alternate work site was the University of Southern Mississippi Small Business Development Center in Long Beach, and that’s gone,” she said. “The second one was the Gulf Coast Business and Technology Center in Biloxi, and executive director Adele Lyons contacted us before we could contact her and welcomed us with open arms.”
After an unprecedented four hurricanes struck Florida and 13 other states last summer, the SBA approved more than $2.1 billion in disaster loans to about 64,500 residents and business owners in the disaster areas.
“Our hearts go out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina,” said SBA administrator Hector Barreto.
FEMA will soon open 25 to 30 Disaster Recovery Centers throughout Mississippi.
“If business owners in the disaster areas have a loss period, they need to start the disaster application process by registering online with FEMA (fema.gov) or by calling 800-621-FEMA,” urged Stewart. “Then if their need is something the SBA can assist with, FEMA will contact us. Since the storm brought on such a massive amount of damage, they may need to be a little patient. More likely, if they call late at night or early in the morning, it’ll be easier for them to get through.” (Until further notice, FEMA’s toll-free line is open 24 hours daily.)
SBA offers loans up to $200,000 to repair disaster-damaged primary residences. Homeowners and renters are eligible for loans up to $40,000 to replace personal property such as furniture and clothing. Loans to businesses of all sizes and non-profit organizations are available up to $1.5 million to repair damage to real estate, machinery, equipment and inventory.
Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDLs) are also available to small businesses unable to pay bills or meet operating expenses.
Interest rates can be as low as 2.68% for homeowners and renters and 4% for businesses with terms up to 30 years. The SBA sets loan amounts and terms based on each applicant’s financial condition.
Stewart, who was logging her 15th hour of the workday, a process repeated daily since the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast August 29, sounded slightly weary but very upbeat. “We’re tired today, but it’s worth it,” she said. “We’re here to help people and glad that we’re able to.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.