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Special Report-

New FEMA at work in South Georgia?

Gene Romano of FEMA Gene Romano of FEMA
Debris removal in Americus Debris removal in Americus

May 7, 2007

Americus --  Shortly after the March Tornado devastated Sumter and eight other Georgia counties, FEMA moved in with the promise of help. More than a 1,800 Georgia households registered with FEMA and GEMA asking for assistance. FEMA has approved more than $14.2 million in disaster funds, but is that really helping south Georgia families?

We went to Americus to investigate, and found some residents asking: "Is this really a new FEMA?"

Just as quickly as the EF-4 tornado devastated Americus, promises of help were made. FEMA was on the ground the next day, and went door to door offering help.

"I think the most important thing for people to understand you are dealing with a new FEMA, the FEMA that has made some corrections since Katrina, we are here in town, we have mobile command centers, we have personnel here, we have provided over 800 tarps to the state already, we're ready to assist in any way possible," said Gene Romano of FEMA. 

Two months into the cleanup, residents wonder, is this really a new FEMA? The city, county, and businesses like Sumter Regional Hospital seem to think so.

"They were here working with us preparing the project worksheets pretty quickly and getting us, I know, particularly with our contract for our waste removal services through SRS, that contract FEMA, GEMA were both there helping us with that negotiation, making sure we had a good contract," says Lynn Taylor, Sumter County Administrator.

"Our experience thus far with FEMA has been very gratifying, and we have really appreciated what they've done for us," says David Seagraves, Sumter Regional Hospital President & CEO.

But individual homeowners like the Betty and Larry Harvey, aren't so sure. Their home took a direct hit behind Winn Dixie. "We had roof damage, the whole entire roof, shingles and everything was gone, and we had damage inside the home, inside the kitchen," Larry said.

Windows were blown out, their entire yard, destroyed, and the Harvey's were left, "Devastated," said Larry "I was, I hold a lot of things inside, so I was like stressed, but I wasn't trying to show her that I was."

That stress continues today. "Getting the money to do it has been kind of hard for us."

While insurance covered some of the damages, the Harvey's also turned to FEMA, applying for help just four days after the tornado tore through. They quickly found that promise of help may be short lived.

"We finally got to the point in the middle of the conversation where he said to me, I probably wasn't going to be able to get a grant because of our income, that I could apply for an SBA, small business loan," Larry Harvey said.

The Harvey's, like others filled out the paperwork, and qualified for a loan, but quickly learned that wasn't feasible either. "It was saying that your house was going to have liens on it for 30 years and you're going to pay so much, two houses, per month, for 30 years, oh no that's not help for us, that's putting us in the hole."

"I feel like it's a sham really," says Betty Harvey. "You're thinking this is a natural disaster area really, so you think you're going to get some help, but then you're really not getting any help."

Applications for FEMA's disaster assistance closed last week. FEMA approved more than $14.2 million in assistance for nine counties including Sumter, but only $1.19 million of that has been grants that won't need to be paid back. They've approved seven times more money for loans, and say they look at a family's unmet needs, and what insurance will cover in deciding who might get a grant.

"People have to be realistic, disaster assistance isn't going to cover all of their damages, it's not going to cover all of their loses," said Gene Romano of FEMA. 

The Harvey's had hoped it would cover some. "We really haven't got no help from FEMA, the Red Cross was a great help," said Larry.

So far, they Harvey's have paid $1,500 out of their pocket to make necessary repairs to get back in their home, they expect that amount to grow. "I was disappointed," said Betty.

Disappointed that they'll have to go this on their own, with what they've got from insurance, making what repairs they can when they've got time to save up the funds to do them.

FEMA paid out more than $5.8 million in public assistance to communities and counties for debris removal, disaster related emergency services, and repairs of infrastructure. The debris removal process in Americus and Sumter County has nearly wrapped up thanks to their help.

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