By GARY D. ROBERTSON
RALEIGH, NC (AP) -- About $6.5 million in government assistance already has been approved for displaced or distressed residents and businesses after last month's deadly tornadoes, emergency officials told state lawmakers Monday but said they're trying to overcome obstacles to let people know about the help.
The emergency management leaders, speaking at the first meeting of a legislative panel examining the response and whether more needs to be done to help storm victims, took questions from lawmakers who are worried poor people will fall through the cracks in the recovery effort.
"The people that really do need it are getting (to) the wayside maybe because so many are coming in at one time they may get overlooked," said Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, adding he's worried about people in his district can't get low-interest loans because "they've got nothing to start with."
More than 7,500 people have sought individual assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency following the April 16 storms that spawned 28 tornadoes, killing 24 people and seriously injuring more than 130. President Barack Obama declared 18 counties federal disaster areas a few days later so that residents and governments could apply for financial assistance.
More than 840 homes were destroyed and 6,000 homes damaged by the storms, while 53 businesses were destroyed and 242 damaged, state Division of Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell told the Joint Select Committee on Tornado Damage Response.
"Our people need some help. Many of them lost everything," said Sen. Bob Atwater, D-Chatham, whose district includes Lee, one of the hardest-hit areas.
Of the $6.5 million, about $4.4 million are in the form of FEMA grants to individual and households, with the remainder going in the form of low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration to business and homeowners, said Julia Jarema, a state emergency management spokeswoman.
The principal on the SBA loans can reach $240,000. People who don't qualify for loans because they have bad credit or for other reasons can receive grants that can reach up to $30,200. The assistance has included at least eight payments to pay for funeral expenses, said Michael Bolch, FEMA's coordinating officer for North Carolina. There's also food stamps, legal assistance and crisis counseling, he added.
The $6.5 million doesn't include expected federal money to help pay what emergency officials estimate is up to $10 million in costs for debris removal and other government emergency measures.
More than 400 FEMA workers and 38 SBA employees are joining 50 state emergency employees in a joint emergency response center south of Raleigh, Bolch said. The staffing will be whittled down as FEMA remains in the state for the next 60 to 90 days, he said.
Bolch and Hoell said they're trying both new technology and old-fashioned marketing to make sure people are aware of what the government can do before a June 20 application filing deadline.
They showed the legislators a video of a Bertie County storm survivor receiving the keys to a temporary housing unit. The video includes information about where needy people can go to get similar help. Bolch said there's also been outreach to civic groups and churches to get the word out, and he's ordered hand fans to distribute to churches that are imprinted with the FEMA contact information.
Rep. Annie Mobley, D-Hertford, said she wants local sheriff's deputies and police officers to post signs in damaged areas about disaster assistance, and believes community meetings would help, too.
"We need to try to continue to reach out to people, and that's my goal between now and June 20," Bolch said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)