Tuesday, May 24, 2011

St. Louis Good Friday Tornado Update

As we watch tornadoes flatten Joplin Missouri, Oklahoma City, and now the Joplin area again, St. Louis county is still recovering from its own EF4 tornado a month later. That tornado tore through several municipalities, destroying thousands of homes, hundreds of businesses and doing severe damage to Lambert International Airport.

Tuesday, May 24, Congressman Clay hosted a telephonic town hall along with Libby Turner from FEMA, Mark Randall from the SBA and the mayors from three of the cities hardest hit Maryland Heights, Berkeley and Bridgeton: Mike Moeller, Kyra Watson, and Conrad Bowers. They gave updates on the recovery efforts and took select questions from the thousand or so callers.

The FEMA and SBA representatives started out by giving information about how to request assistance. The most important points, for those seeking assistance, is to contact FEMA to begin your application for assistance, details of which can be found on their website at http://www.fema.gov/assistance/index.shtm, by phone 800-621-FEMA, or their mobile site http://m.fema.gov. From there, they will send you paperwork to apply for grants from FEMA for everything from housing and personal loss to medical and funeral assistance. Also, they will send you applications for very low rate SBA loans to assist you in ways FEMA is not allowed to such as deductible coverage. In response to a question from the Post Dispatch's media representative, Lisa Brown, Ms. Turner and Mr. Randall explained that $610,000 in grants have been approved and over 600 SBA loan applications have been processed for homeowners and many area businesses.

The mayors then discussed the current status of the recovery. In the three municipalities represented, more than 1100 residences have been damaged, about ten percent of those flattened or in other ways left unlivable. Bridgeton alone has spent about $2.5 million on the recovery effort. All the mayor praised the volunteers and aid, both from other municipalities in the area and numerous private aid organizations. "FEMA cooperation has been outstanding," Moeller said. More volunteers are still needed, as clean up is expected to continue throughout the summer according to Mayor Watson.

During the question in answer session that came next, many of these details were expanded upon and a number of other issues were brought out. A Ms. Booker and another caller, Arlene, asked why the government is giving those in need loans when they really don't need to take on more debt. Ms. Turner explained that FEMA only offers grants, potentially totaling up to $30,200 while the SBA offers loans and works very hard with the home owner to make the terms as generous as possible, including rates as low as 2.68% and repayment plans as long as 30 years.

In response to one caller's thank you, Rep. Clay responded saying such actions are what government is supposed to do in such times of disaster. But when I asked what the government is doing to prepare for more and more frequent disasters like this, FEMA's first response was that they rely on a prepared citizenry, highlighting http://www.ready.gov/. Turner also highlighted national exercises that FEMA, state, and local emergency responders do to practice their response.

I find it telling that Ms. Turner's first response to "how is the government preparing?" is to say that people need to just prepare themselves. How is a family of four supposed to prepare for their home being hit by an EF5 tornado? How is a city supposed to prepare for a magnitude 9.0 earthquake like Japan faced. As Rep. Clay said, this is what government is for. Yet Republicans in the legislature feel they need to cut programs in order to pay for recovery efforts in Joplin. We are not a nation who says, "We can't help you unless we take money away from these people over here." We aren't a nation that says, "You'd better take care of yourself." We used to be a nation that cared for our neighbors, next door or across the country.

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