For Vt flood victims, FEMA centers offer help

Posted July 03, 2011, at 8:16 p.m.

COLCHESTER, Vt. — When rains overwhelmed their street and flooded the basement of their Colchester home, it wasn’t the end of the world for Kenneth and Irene Peters.

But the damage added up. Soggy plasterboard, insulation and rugs had to be removed. Kenneth Peters had to buy pumps to siphon the water out.

The way they figure it, their losses added up to about $4,000. So they’re looking to Uncle Sam for some help.

“Ours wasn’t a big story,” said Irene Peters, 75. “But it was big to us.”

Last week, the couple showed up at a newly-established Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery center to find out whether the federal government might compensate them for some of the costs.

A disaster declaration for seven Vermont counties has prompted FEMA to set up three of the centers, staffed with representatives of FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The centers are located in Colchester, St. Albans and Swanton. All three are open through the three-day Independence Day weekend, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The aid — grants and low-interest loans — are available to people in seven counties that have been declared disaster areas from flooding that occurred between April 23 and May 9.

The counties are Lamoille, Franklin, Chittenden, Addison, Grand Isle, Essex and Orleans.

Officials of the agencies say anyone looking for loans or grants are best-served by calling FEMA at (800) 621-3362 or going online to register at www.DisasterAssistance.gov.

The disaster centers are staffed with eight people each, and they can help.

“You could access aid without ever coming to a Disaster Recovery Center,” said Carl Sherrill, a spokesman for the U.S. Small Business Administration assigned to the Vermont flooding disaster. “But often times, people find it a comfort or they need to actually sit down and talk face-to-face with somebody. This is the place to come. It’s designed as a one-stop shop, with all of the agen cies being there.”

Before the disaster was declared, Vermonters who suffered damages were being encouraged by state officials to call 211, a free referral service for community resources. But to register for federal assistance, they must call FEMA, go online or apply at one of the disaster recovery centers.

The Colchester center is located in offices at the Malletts Bay Fire Department, where about eight workers sit at tables with computers and telephones, waiting for walk-in customers. If the pace is like it was at midday Tuesday, no one will have to wait for help.

As of Tuesday, about 56 people had walked in since the center opened June 22. At St. Albans, about two dozen. At Swanton, about 10 in the first two days last week, according to Robert Hockensmith, a public information officer for FEMA assigned to the Vermont disaster centers.

FEMA officials say completing a loan application doesn’t obligate a person to accept it. But they say the process can lead to other aid — including grants.

Once an application is made, an inspector visits the home or business to assess the damage and determine the amount of aid warranted.

The applications are turning around quickly — sometimes within 10 days, according to Hockensmith.

During their visit to the Colchester center, Kenneth and Irene Peters sat across a table from Small Business Administration customer service representative Jelain Guess, who helped them fill out a loan application, took information about their financial assets and the damages to their home.

Stressed out after coping with the flooded basement for eight weeks, Mrs. Peters was worried.

“I don’t want you worrying any more, lady,” Guess told her as their interview ended.

With that, Mrs. Peters rose from her chair and told Guess she wanted to hug her. They hugged.

“My wife’s a hugger,” said her husband afterward. “She always hugs. Even at the doctor’s office.”

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