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After the Flooding, Outposts of Hope

(James M. Thresher - Twp)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

Silvia Portobanco replaced the electrical wiring in her soaked Huntington duplex. She secured a donated replacement for the car that washed away in the late-June floods. But she still needed thousands of dollars to repair her soggy basement.

And so last week, she walked into Fairfax County's South County Government Center, where the U.S. Small Business Administration has set up shop to offer low-interest loans to residents and businesses in the region whose property suffered damage -- by wind, lightning, rain or any other destructive storm-related force -- from June 25 to 30.

"The 24th?" Portobanco, 66, asked aloud, searching for the day's date to write on an application. Across a counter from her, SBA employee Shery Lavelle nodded.

"That's something else with the flood," Portobanco said. "Part of my brain washed away."

Lavelle nodded again. "You're thinking about other things," she said.

About a dozen applicants a day have stopped by the assistance center, officials said. Most are homeowners from Huntington, a community of modest 1950s duplexes inundated by water from Cameron Run during the rains, said SBA spokesman Carl Sherrill.

The SBA announced Aug. 17 that it would offer loans to residents of the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church and of Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Residents of Charles, Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland and the District also are eligible.

The SBA offer came three weeks after the Federal Emergency Management Agency outraged local officials by denying emergency aid for some Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including Fairfax. A FEMA official attributed the decision in part to Fairfax's affluence, saying the county was equipped to assist the 200 or so households whose property had been severely damaged.

"This is like a second chance at providing assistance to the community," Sherrill said. A similar assistance center is operating in Arlington.

The SBA offers loans of up to $40,000 for renters and homeowners to repair or replace property such as furniture and clothing. Homeowners are eligible for loans of up to $200,000 to repair disaster-damaged primary residences. Loans to businesses of all sizes and nonprofit organizations are available up to $1.5 million.

Applicants with poor credit histories or very low incomes might not qualify, officials said. But Lavelle said the SBA "pulls out the stops" to try to help. Many SBA outreach employees, who travel from one disaster zone to another, themselves live in vulnerable areas that have seen their share of damage, said Lavelle, a Florida resident.

Portobanco's saga began the night of June 25, when her adult son stepped outside their home to walk the dogs.

"He goes, 'Holy cow, Mommy, your car is swimming!' " said Portobanco, a legal assistant with the Social Security Administration.

She rushed to look, and saw her 1995 Toyota Corolla floating down a street that had become a small river. She went to the back yard and found that it resembled a lake.

As Portobanco surveyed the scene, her basement windows burst under the pressure of the rising water outside. Soon, water had filled her basement -- drenching her bedroom, a lifetime of tax records and a television, among other items -- and had risen nine feet, stopping just short of her kitchen door.

Portobanco had no flood insurance, and her homeowner's insurance was no help. The gas lines and electrical wiring were ruined, so she had to stay with her daughter. Four weeks later, having paid for basic repairs with a few thousand dollars of her son's car settlement -- his 2005 Mustang also was flooded -- Portobanco moved back in.

But the basement remains a shambles, and Portobanco said she is behind on her bills.

"Where the money is going to come from, I have no idea," she said. "It is hard when you work all your life and try to make it and then everything is gone." Her eyes welled with tears.

She said she was praying for an SBA loan of $10,000. The loans carry rates of 2.9 to 5.9 percent for homeowners and 4 to 7.6 percent for businesses.

"It's an option," she said. "It's a help."

Residents and business owners who are awaiting insurance settlements may apply, Sherrill said. Insurance payments can then be used to help repay an SBA loan. Those who do not have flood insurance will be required to purchase it if they are granted loans, he said, "so they don't have to go through this again."

The SBA is accepting applications for physical damage until Oct. 17 and for small-business economic losses until May 17. Applications can be obtained by calling 800-659-2955, or 800-877-8339 for the hearing-impaired. Business loan applications can be downloaded athttp://www.sba.gov/disaster.

The South County Government Center is at 8350 Richmond Hwy. (Route 1) in the Alexandria area of the county. The Arlington assistance center is at the offices of the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr. Both are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.


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