In a small eighth-floor office in the Small Business Administration's headquarters, Bernard Kulik leans back in his tan leather chair, a telephone pressed to his ear. On the line is a subordinate in the Atlanta office. They're talking about the weather.
For the deputy assistant administrator for disaster assistance, the weather is not just a matter of small talk. Kulik was keeping track of Hurricane Diana, to try to make sure that the agency will have resources available where they're eventually needed.
"This is a program that has an element of glamor for me and for the 120 or so people who work in it," said Kulik, who has worked for the government for 25 years. "You feel a sense of power and pride in knowing that people will be counting on you and you have to be there to help them."
For many homeowners, entrepreneurs and farmers, the SBA is the first source of relief from the damage caused by everything from tornadoes and floods to ice-clogged rivers and chemical explosions. The SBA's job is to handle applications for discount-rate disaster loans, and, as Kulik put it, to "help people in getting their lives back to normal."
"You're never going to get bored in this job," he said. "You're helping people. I think we're doing a damn good service for victims."
After a disaster occurs, a governor can ask either the SBA or the president to declare a disaster. If the state or locality meets certain criteria, the SBA can provide loans to repair homes, businesses or farms. A presidentially declared disaster also triggers money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help localities clean up and rebuild their roads, bridges and sewer systems.
This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, President Reagan has declared 23 disasters; the SBA has declared 41 others.
Congress provides the guidance for what qualifies as a disaster. For example, the SBA now is required to make loans to border-state businesses that suffered from the devaluation of the Mexican peso. The law was also changed recently to accommodate West Coast fishermen who suffered because of warm currents spawned by El Nino. The SBA, however, intends to interpret that provision narrowly, based on future decisions by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Over the past decade, about 45 percent of the SBA's disaster loans have been made to families and businesses hurt by floods. About 30 percent were for hurricanes, which Kulik said cause the most widespread damage but are less frequent. Although tornadoes account for only one of every 30 loans, Kulik said they cause the most "emotional problems."
"There's a 'why me?' factor with tornadoes," he said, explaining that their narrow path can hit the home of one family and leave their neighbors' intact.
Kulik said his major problem "is getting Congress -- the same people who wrote the laws -- to understand what they have done."
He said he gets a steady stream of mail from members, requesting aid for constituents who have been turned down by an SBA disaster assistance office.
"The most common response is to cite the law and say, 'That's what you wrote,' so we have no choice," Kulik said. He cited as an example the SBA's farm lending program. "We are now handling loans to farmers under three different provisions of the law. Whenever we get a letter from Congress, the most important section is the date of the disaster to see what law was in effect."
The lending rate has also become a political football. Now the rate is set at 8 percent for people who can get credit elsewhere and 4 percent for those who can't, but all must demonstrate "a basic ability to repay." Congress, however, left the rate for nonprofit institutions at 10.5 percent.
"Was that accidental?" he asked. "I don't know. But when the next hospital is hard-hit by a flood and asks for money, they're going to complain about that higher rate."
Although Kulik said he wasn't looking to "get in trouble" with Capitol Hill, he contended that the frequent turnover on some congressional staffs makes it difficult for Congress to keep informed about the intricacies of the disaster loan program.
For example, people who have been hit by a flood but don't purchase flood insurance aren't likely to qualify for SBA loans the second time their homes are flooded -- no matter how much they complain to Capitol Hill, he said.
On the other hand, after the Johnstown, Pa., flood in 1972, the SBA received a loan application from a stripper. Among other things, she claimed she had lost her tassles and other pieces of job-related equipment, which an SBA official discreetly labeled "personal personal items."
The SBA came through with the loan. Kulik noted, "She met the criteria."