SBA mobilizes ‘surge staff’ at call center, Houston area to help Harvey recovery

Compared to dramatic rooftop rescues and videos of emergency personnel tearing through flooded neighborhoods, sitting down at a desk to apply for a disaster loan isn’t the most dramatic image from Hurricane Harvey coverage.

Carol Chastang, public affairs specialist for the Small Business Administration, says those applications might not be the most headline-grabbing, but they’re critical for communities looking to rebuild after a crippling storm.

“The really exciting images are of somebody being plucked out of the water by helicopter, but somebody sitting down and filling out an application and talking to a loan officer, that’s not as exciting,” Chastang said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “But again that’s the long term recovery, especially for businesses. If businesses don’t come back to a community, then that community is devastated economically forever. It’s never going to recover, so the engine of any area is the small business community.”

That’s why, when personnel at the Homeland Security Department and its emergency components started packing for Texas, SBA went right along with them.

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“We have to support this community, we have to have these people rebuild, we have to help them reclaim their lives,” Chastang said. “So whatever it takes we’re prepared to do it.”

To do it, SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance is operating with a surge staff, meaning the normally 1,000-member workforce is getting an injection of temporary hires.

The office draws from congressionally appropriated funding. According to the SBA’s fiscal 2018 budget justification, it requested total budget authority of roughly $176 million in disaster assistance appropriations, compared to $175 million in 2017.

“It’s almost like a separate program or entity within the Small Business Administration,” Chastang said. “SBA disaster loans are the only form of assistance from SBA that homeowners and renters have access to. These are direct loans, they are not backed by commercial lenders like other SBA loan programs. These are direct Treasury-backed loans.”

Chastang said these temporary workers normally help for several months of the recovery phase, both at SBA’s physical offices, and out in the field.

“We have a disaster customer service center in Buffalo, N.Y., where people can call for information about how to apply, and that center has already reached out via the local media seeking local hires,” Chastang said. “So we’ll be doing local hires in the Houston area, and also for our center in Buffalo. We’ve been ramping up, we’ve been sending staff down to Texas. This is going to be an extensive, lengthy recovery process, and SBA is here for the long haul.”

Chastang said about 67 field staff are already down in Texas, and SBA has completed 3,275 damage inspections. The Buffalo call center received some 18,659 calls through Labor Day.

Chastang said already SBA’s disaster field operations center that handles activities west of the Mississippi River, has been sending personnel to the Houston area.

“As this recovery expands — and we saw this after [Hurricane] Sandy for instance — we have a disaster field operations center east in Atlanta. They’ve been busy responding to other disasters,” Chastang said. “We may pull staff from that office to help out and again, we will probably be doing some local hiring of attorneys, loan officers, public information officers, IT specialists, customer service and clerical staff, to support with the disaster loan processing functions once we start opening the recovery centers in the Houston area.”

The SBA on Labor Day opened a Business Recovery Center (BRC) at the Port Aransas Community Center in Nueces County, which is about 250 miles southwest of Houston. A BRC opened Sept. 3 at the University of Houston.

The administration has received 7,908 disaster loan applications. As of Sept. 5, nearly 300 disaster loans have been approved for $26.7 million. Of those, 279 home loans have been approved for $25 million, and 19 business disaster loans have been approved for $1.6 million, Chastang said.

“Right now we’re telling people to really manage their expectations; that it will probably be 4 weeks between the time we receive the application and the time a decision is made, and that might even change,” Chastang said. “Right now that’s what we’re telling the public, again to manage expectations.”

The time frame is based in part on the fact that SBA has already been handling disaster loans from other parts of the country. While not at the same level as Hurricane Harvey, “we’re working a lot of other disasters.”

Supporting each other

Chastang said the first thing people impacted by Harvey should do is register for federal assistance with Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA].

“We encourage people to do that, even business owners, because there’s going to be broad, extensive offerings for federal assistance for business owners, homeowners, and renters in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” Chastang said. “Once they’ve done that, we’re also encouraging people to go to our website.”

SBA works with FEMA not only at recovery centers — they often share the same space — but the two agencies will often direct home and business owners to each other if their application is more appropriate for a loan or grant.

“We work with FEMA to just kind of share information with the public,” Chastang said. “We support each other.”

Chastang said it was still too early to tell what kind of online surge SBA’s website will see, as many people are still in rescue and recovery mode in Texas.

“We are approving disaster loans, people are actually calling, but it’s really going to be within the next few weeks it will really ramp up,” Chastang said.

Chastang said the goal right now is to make sure everyone has what they need when applying for a loan, and any questions they have are answered.

“This is an unplanned debt that they’re about to incur, it’s not like buying a house or car,” Chastang said. “This disaster happened, nobody planned for this. We really do our best to make sure that we make the application process as seamless and stress free as possible.”

The next big disaster

SBA’s efforts are also being watched by Congress.

In a letter to SBA Administrator Linda McMahon, House Small Business Committee Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), said the committee appreciated the administration’s early efforts to respond to the storm.

“The [disaster loan program] necessarily improved following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy,” Chabot said in his letter. “In the wake of those disasters, the oversight community — including Congress, the Government Accountability Office, and the SBA Office of Inspector General — made several recommendations and took legislative action to help SBA improve its disaster loan program. SBA largely implemented these recommendations and legislative provisions. At [its April 26] hearing, however, the committee emphasized that SBA must continue improving its loan process times while also guarding against fraud and abuse in the program. Although a difficult task, SBA reassured the committee at the hearing it was capable and ready for that next big disaster.”

At her January confirmation hearing, SBA Administrator Linda McMahon said she would be making disaster relief programs a priority because when “small businesses are put out of business for a while, our economy suffers.”

In an interview with Federal News Radio, McMahon doubled down on that pledge.

By May she had already visited SBA’s Disaster Assistance Processing & Disbursement Center (PDC) in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and planned to attend a mock drill in the near future to see how SBA’s disaster assistance factors in to the overarching response effort during an emergency.

“Disaster relief is incredibly important and it is so important because we are helping to get businesses and families back on their feet,” McMahon said. “I’m very proud of the organization that we have. I’ve signed several disaster relief [declarations] now. When the first one came across my desk, I felt an incredible responsibility.”