Despite an existing backlog of applications, the Small Business Administration is encouraging businesses damaged by Hurricane Katrina to file for federal disaster loans before next week's deadline.

Small businesses in the Gulf Coast region that suffered property damages during the storm have until April 10 to apply for low-interest loans. The loans are also available to homeowners, renters, and non-profit organizations.

The deadline for economic injury loans for local businesses is May 29.

Business owners that have not returned an application before the deadline may be disqualified from receiving other forms of assistance, while those that have applied and are later denied loans may automatically be referred to other recovery programs, the agency said.

As of March 28, the SBA had approved 17,000 loans, worth $1.6 billion, for small businesses, and about 84,600 more for homeowners and renters. Since the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the SBA has processed more than 321,000 applications, agency figures showed.

That's the largest disaster response in the agency's history, SBA Administrator Hector Barreto said in a statement. "We are very eager to put the money into the hands of the people in the disaster area," Barreto said.

Local small businesses, along with members on both sides of Congress, have accused the agency of mishandling recovery efforts, citing delays in loan approvals, among other issues.