Ginette Philippeaux, FEMA applicant service team specialist, prepares to help Pinellas County residents at the local disaster recovery center in Park Station, 5851 Park Blvd. in Pinellas Park July 16. The center is open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to help residents recover from damages caused by Tropical Storm Debby.
PINELLAS PARK – The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Florida, opened a local disaster recovery center July 12 in Park Station, 5851 Park Blvd. in Pinellas Park.
The center – open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. – is set up to help Pinellas County residents claim damages caused by Tropical Storm Debby. The center is one of four, which are located in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Highlands counties, that opened as a result of the storm, said FEMA spokeswoman Renee Bafalis.
“Those centers are set up primarily to work with residents in the affected community,” she said. “It’s sort of a one-stop shop.”
The center features resources and representatives from several different government agencies and nonprofits, including FEMA, the state Emergency Management team, Access Florida, the U.S. Small Business Administration, American Red Cross, Area Agency on Aging, Workforce Pinellas and the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.
“It’s really just a resource for residents to come in to speak to somebody one-on-one,” Bafalis said.
Since opening, traffic through the first floor room of Park Station has been slow, state and federal employees said recently. But as information about the center reaches Pinellas County residents, they expect that to change.
While residents can register at the center, Bafalis advised the public to preregister their claims with FEMA by calling 1-800-621-FEMA or TTY 1-800-462-7585. Telephone lines are answered seven days a week, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Claimants also can register online anytime at www.disasterassistance.gov or via smart phone or tablet using the FEMA app or by going to m.fema.gov.
“It expedites the process for them if they’re already registered when they come in,” she said.
Once applicants are issued a nine-digit registration number, anyone within the recovery center can look up the status of their claim. The next step in the claim process is for an inspector to come out to the property in question to document all the damages caused by the tropical storm. That information is then forwarded to FEMA employees, who will determine what type of assistance, if any, the applicant is eligible for.
FEMA grants are available to residents and business owners for repair of large and small storm damages not covered by insurance. Grants might include money for home repairs, up to three months of rental costs for people who had to move out of their home due to the storm, transportation or medical expenses, unemployment assistance and funeral costs if there was a death in the family due to the storm.
Applications will receive a “determination letter” to let them know if they meet the qualifications for a grant. Bafalis cautioned applicants to read their determination letter completely.
Many will read that they are “ineligible for assistance” at the beginning of the letter and not realize that the agency is still waiting to see what the applicant’s insurance will cover, or that something was missing from the application. In both instances, the applicant may still be eligible for assistance.
Those denied help can appeal the decision within 60 days. Representatives at the recovery center can help residents write an appeals letter, Bafalis said.
Those determined to be ineligible for FEMA assistance may be given an application for a loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration. These loans can help pay for residential and business losses not covered by insurance.
Bafalis said it was important to apply for a SBA loan, as a way of pursuing assistance.
“Some folks will receive a Small Business Administration application but don’t understand what that’s for,” she said.
Eligibility for those loans, which could be as low as 1.9 percent for both homeowners and renters or 4 percent for businesses, does not mean the applicant must accept the loan. But the low-interest rate could be better than paying for unexpected costs with a credit card, Bafalis said.
“At least it’ll be there,” she said. “You never know what might happen in a month or two.”
Plus, if applicants are determined to be ineligible for SBA loans, then they are referred back to assistance from FEMA. If they do nothing, their application process stalls, Bafalis said.
The center also can be a resource for crisis counseling as well as contact point for a number of nonprofit organizations that can help.
“We want to help (residents) in whatever they need … so they don’t fall through cracks,” Bafalis said.
The local disaster recovery center will remain open to the public seven days a week until further notice.
For more information about SBA disaster loans, call 1-800-659-2955, TTY 1-800-877-8339, or visit www.sba.gov.
Pinellas County Economic Development’s Small Business Development Center, at 13805 58th St. N., Suite 1-200, in Clearwater, offers help in applying for a SBA disaster loan or a Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan. Visit www.pced.org/entrepreneurs or call Dr. Cynthia Johnson at 464-7445 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.