Democrats Push More Disaster Aid for Small Businesses
BY Angus Loten
A new bill seeks to remedy problems that arose during last year's hurricane season.
Warning of another deadly storm season ahead, Senate Democrats introduced a bill last week to boost federal aid for small businesses in the wake of natural disasters.
Among other measures, the Small Business Disaster Loan Reauthorization and Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), would streamline the process of applying for federal disaster loans, while providing immediate bridge loans to disaster victims while they await for longer-term assistance.
It would also require the Small Business Administration, which oversees federal disaster loans for small businesses, to make regular reports to Congress on the progress of recovery efforts, as well as the number of rebuilding contracts awarded to smaller firms.
Both the SBA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were widely criticized for their slow response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma last year.
"Residents of the Gulf Coast continue to rebuild form last year's hurricane season, and they do so despite the slow and inadequate response from their federal government," Kerry said in introducing the bill on Thursday.
Kerry, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said the bill seeks to increase access to capital for small businesses after a disaster and helps ensure that federal disaster response agencies are "doing their jobs."
On June 1, the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, outgoing SBA chief Hector Barreto said the agency's disaster-operation centers in the Gulf were fully staffed with loss verifiers, loan processors, and attorneys.
Barreto also said the agency's computerized loan processing system -- which some critics said was ill-equipped to handle the volume of applications from storm victims last year -- "has been significantly upgraded and will be operational this month,"
The agency has also requested proposals from private sector lending companies to assist with the closing and disbursement of disaster loans, Barreto said.
Since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, the SBA has approved more than $2.15 billion in disaster loans spread over nearly 60,000 applications from small businesses. About 125,000 small and midsize businesses were disrupted by the storm, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates.
Kerry's bill is expected to be considered among other proposals by members of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship and included in a bipartisan omnibus bill later this year, a spokesperson at Kerry's office said.