ADDISON COUNTY — When President Obama approved Gov. Peter Shumlin’s request on Monday to add Addison and Orange counties to Vermont’s federal disaster declaration, it opened the floodgates for federal aid to those who suffered as a result of Tropical Storm Irene.
This declaration — which already applied to five other Vermont counties — will help Vermonters cushion the devastating blow of Tropical Storm Irene, which the White House estimated will cost the Green Mountain State $1.5 billion.
The disaster declaration makes available elevated federal funding and monetary relief through organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In addition to federal aid, several state-affiliated organizations — like the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. — are offering low-interest loans and loan payment relief.
As of Tuesday, the state confirmed that 700 homes across Vermont were severely damaged or destroyed, and that number continues to climb.
On Wednesday, FEMA spokesman Victor Inge told the Independent that 2,694 Vermonters had registered for aid thus far, and $5,391,502 had been approved through FEMA’s individual assistance program. This program offers grants up to $30,200 for individuals, opens opportunities for low-interest loans and may provide additional funding. This aid will help affected homeowners, businesses and renters cover the costs of temporary housing, home repairs and uninsured property losses.
“We’re encouraging anybody who was impacted by the storm (to register for FEMA aid) … and not try to determine their eligibility themselves,” said Inge, who explained that funding could help a wide range of disaster victims — from those who dealt with a flooded basement to those who lost their entire homes.
“The disaster grants are not income sensitive,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if you have enough income to cover it yourself … but what we do not do is duplicate benefits. The grants are designed to cover uninsured loss.”
There are three ways to register for individual assistance:
• Via the Internet at disasterassistance.gov.
• By phone at 800-621-3362.
• By smartphone or tablet PC at m.fema.gov.
The deadline for registering with FEMA is Oct. 31, but FEMA strongly urges Vermonters in need of assistance to register sooner rather than later.
A team of community relations specialists will likely be in Addison County next week to talk with affected residents and answer questions one-on-one. Furthermore, three disaster recovery centers across the state — in Barre, Waterbury and Brattleboro — are offering additional support.
Individuals that register for disaster assistance through FEMA may also receive a loan application through the Small Business Administration.
“We encourage people to fill it out and return it,” said Inge. “It doesn’t obligate them to accept the loan, but it may be critical to receiving other forms of assistance from FEMA through our other needs assistance programs.”
For individuals and businesses heavily hurt by the storm, the $30,200 in FEMA assistance might not be enough. Therefore, the SBA is offering a series of low-interest loans.
“The first goal of the federal assistance is to get people safe, sanitary and secure and that’s where FEMA starts giving out emergency assistance funds,” said SBA spokesman Garth MacDonald. “We’re the primary source of funds for long-term recovery, so we’ll be here a little bit longer than FEMA working to get people as close to a full recovery as possible.”
The SBA is offering fixed rate loans as low as 2.5 percent for homeowners and renters for home repairs and personal property replacement. The limit for home repairs is $200,000 and for other personal property is $40,000.
Businesses are eligible for fixed rate loans as low as 4 percent and private nonprofits as low as 3 percent. Both entities have a limit of $2 million and can take out physical injury loans for property damage or economic injury loans for coping with long-term economic impacts.
“There’s a lot of concern about businesses being impacted during foliage season,” said MacDonald. “So hotels, restaurants, even service businesses of any kind … might lose business … (this incident) can have a real ripple effect.”
The deadline to apply for physical damage loans is Oct. 31, and the deadline for economic injury loans is June 1, 2012.
IRS AND OTHER ASSISTANCE
As part of the individual assistance declaration, the IRS will postpone certain deadlines for taxpayers who reside or have a business in the disaster area, a Wednesday IRS press release said.
The IRS will also:
• Waive “the failure-to-deposit penalties for employment and excise tax deposits due on or after Aug. 29, and on or before Sept. 13 as long as the deposits are made by Sept. 13.”
• Give “affected taxpayers until Oct. 31 to perform other time-sensitive actions … that are due on or after Aug. 29 and on or before Oct. 31.”
• Provide taxpayers in an affected area like Addison County with “the option of claiming disaster-related casualty losses on their federal income tax return for either this year or last year.”
• “Waive the usual fees and expedite requests for copies of previously filed tax returns for affected taxpayers.”
Peggy Riley, New England spokeswoman for the IRS, told the Independent on Tuesday that these forms of tax relief apply to all county residents.
In addition to IRS assistance, there are other forms of aid available. For example:
• The Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) has set aside $10 million in low-interest loans for businesses and farms that incurred physical damage from Irene.
The maximum loan amount is $100,000 and the interest rate will be fixed at 1 percent for the first two years with no payments mandated during the first year. The rate will then be adjusted at the beginning of the third year to the VEDA small business loan program variable index.
Loans will be approved on a first come, first served basis.
• The Vermont Student Assistance Corp. (VSAC) is offering a 90-day forbearance period to VSAC loan borrowers — private and public alike — affected by the recent crisis, which allows borrowers to temporarily halt payments or pay a reduced amount. The borrower is, however, responsible for accrued interest during this period.
Addison County borrowers, and borrowers living in other disaster declaration counties, might also be eligible for additional forms of student loan relief.
• State authorities urge disaster victims experiencing insurance problems to contact the Vermont Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration by phone at 802-828-3301 or via the web at www.bishca.state.vt.us.
PUBLIC ASSISTANCE AND HUD FUNDS
In addition to individual assistance, FEMA also provides public assistance to public entities like schools and towns, and nonprofits such as hospitals.
In the weeks to come, FEMA will hold an applicant briefing in each county of the state to explain how FEMA funds will be allocated and how towns and other entities can apply for this funding.
FEMA’s Inge explained that the public assistance program is a reimbursement program through the state. FEMA reimburses 75 percent of the costs for qualifying public assistance projects and the public entity and the state of Vermont will split the remaining costs.
“Everyone will be invited to come and learn about exactly what is eligible,” said Inge.
Additionally, local governments can reallocate HUD funding from Community Development Block Grants toward disaster relief. Local governments are also eligible to take advantage of low-interest loans for repairing public infrastructure.
HUD is granting a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures for certain federally insured home mortgages and is offering insurance and mortgage options for rehabilitation.
“We have existing funds to help low-income families and we’re prepared to provide them with more funding to help them meet the need of repairs to deal with the damage of the flood,” said Joshua Hanford, director of the Vermont Community Program, which administers in-state HUD funding.
For more information about HUD opportunities, contact Hanford at [email protected].
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]