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Borrowing Trouble : Small-Firm Owners Still Awaiting SBA Quake Relief


But underneath all the growing frustration is a kind of innocence lost as, one by one, business owners discover an ugly fact about disasters: Damage to your home is bad, but damage to your business is worse.

That's because most disaster relief historically has been geared toward middle-class homeowners. Entrepreneurs, including owners of commercial apartment buildings, come in a distant second, said Mary Comerio, a UC Berkeley architecture professor who studied FEMA and SBA response to housing problems after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Most of the government's relief programs were developed for rural areas where there was less need to help apartment or business owners, she said. There is no equivalent of FEMA housing vouchers or grants for private enterprise.

"There are lots of misperceptions around in the public mind," Comerio said. "One is that the government will help you after a disaster. Another is that it all will be OK soon. In reality, rebuilding takes a tremendous amount of time."

Don Ivone has already figured that out. The Burbank real estate broker suffered $50,000 worth of broken windows, wall cracks and water damage when a pipe in his office's ceiling burst during the quake. He applied for an SBA loan two months ago and can't find out where his application stands.

"We've made several phone calls and we've been left in Muzak limbo forever, and it just becomes cost prohibitive for us to stay on the phone," said Ivone, president of California Real Estate Services. "We're like the Energizer bunny. We're still waiting, still waiting."

For the SBA, responding to the Northridge earthquake has been akin to setting up a Fortune 500 company almost overnight. What's more, this instant organization must deal with complicated financial documents and a crush of customers who have just been through one of the worst experiences of their lives.

"Unfortunately, we've had many opportunities to get better and better at it," said Tom MacKenzie, Sacramento-based assistant administrator for the SBA's sprawling Western region.

This time, that meant jumping within a few weeks from 300 to more than 2,500 employees handling disaster response in the region. More than half were new, untrained hires. Telephone lines and nearly 100 operators were added. Facilities were rented and furnished.

Raining down on them was an unexpected torrent of loan applications from homeowners and businesses. In the two and a half months since the quake, the SBA already has received more applications for earthquake-related disaster loans than it collected after any other disaster--even months later, when it came time to close the books. Even so, the SBA is averaging more than $20 million in loan approvals a day; agency officials used to consider $5 million in approvals a good day.

Indeed, the agency has won many fans with its initial fancy footwork.

"It's the most impressive response I've ever seen from a government agency," said John J. Rooney, president of the Valley Economic Development Center, a nonprofit organization that estimates it has helped more than 5,000 companies fill out earthquake disaster loan applications. "My hat is off to them."

In the first month alone, the SBA issued nearly 300,000 applications and got back slightly more than 46,000. By comparison, applications issued after Hurricane Andrew--the previous record-holder in the disaster derby--reached nearly 48,000 in the first month; 5,700 were sent back completed.

The SBA shuffled more paper (5,715 applications processed) and approved more money ($93.3 million in home and business loans) in the first month after the quake than ever before. But despite that pace, the proportion of applications processed actually was much smaller than in previous disasters, because the demand was so huge. About 40,000 applications sat unprocessed.

"The big challenge for them is, because they're going to have an unprecedented number of applications filed, getting them processed," Rooney said. "They have such a big bubble to swallow."

Bernard Kulik has been running the SBA's disaster assistance program for 12 years--long enough to earn the nickname "Master of Disaster." Kulik defends has agency's response while acknowledging that there have been problems in getting loan applications through the system.

"We're knocking ourselves out to do it. We're attacking it tooth and nail," Kulik said.

"Obviously, we're not doing it as fast as we would like," he said. "Whatever delay we're dealing with is because of the volume. The numbers are enormous."

On average, it is taking the SBA two to three weeks to process home loan applications to the point of approval or rejection and four to six weeks for business loans. Businesses can receive loans for actual damages as well as for "economic injury" suffered because they were closed for a time or because revenues dropped after the quake.

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