FEMA explains why payouts for earthquake damage are much smaller than expected for some

Published: Feb. 19, 2019 at 6:03 PM AKST
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FEMA grants are not meant to take the place of earthquake insurance.

That's a message that FEMA spokesperson Jack Heesch says his team has been explaining regularly since they were deployed to Alaska in the wake of President Trump's federal disaster declaration.

"Our role here is twofold of course. The first one is the public infrastructure that's been damaged, and that's always the high dollar figure for recovery," Heesch said.

The second part of FEMA's role involves providing relief funding for those who suffered losses as a result of last November's earthquake, but Heesch says that FEMA grants are only meant to cover the cost of repairs that are necessary to make a home inhabitable.

"We look at the repairs that are needed and say 'What does it take for this family to continue to live in this dwelling safely?' and that's the amount of assistance that we're going to provide," Heesch said.

After those immediate repairs are made, that's when the Small Business Administration steps in.

Many Alaskans have voiced concerns that their FEMA grant assessments would only cover a very small fraction of the damage from the earthquake. Officials with government agencies providing relief say that's happening because the federal disaster recovery system is organized in a way that allows the SBA to shoulder most of the financial burdens.

"The bulk of the money — the primary source of the long-term recovery dollars — that's in the form of loans," said Bill Koontz, spokesperson for the SBA Disaster Recovery program.

The SBA is able to give loans to earthquake-damaged businesses for amounts of up to $2 million, at around 3.25 percent interest. The agency can also offer homeowners loans of up to $200,000 at about 2 percent interest — rates well below market levels.

According to Heesch, FEMA will be referring every Alaskan that requests assistance to the SBA for loan approval. In turn, Koontz says eligible residents will be approved for loans with no commitment, and if applicants can't afford a loan, they'll be referred back to FEMA for additional assistance options.

Alaskans that want to appeal their assessed grant amounts through FEMA have approximately 30 days from the day the grant amount is calculated.

State assistance applications are being accepted until Feb. 28.

Two disaster recovery centers will be open at Community Covenant Church in Eagle River and Christ First United Methodist Church in Wasilla through April 1.

Both centers are open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.