In Brigantine, mixed feelings on how Sandy recovery has gone since Obama's visit
Since President Barack Obama’s visit after Hurricane Sandy, boats that once littered the roadway by North Point Marina have been picked up and returned to their racks.
The inch of mud swept inside marina owner Donna Vanzant’s office also has been cleared, and damaged drywall and insulation ripped out.
But while the Brigantine marina shows signs of recovery — including reopening to customers and providing winterization and storage services — finding a way to afford the thousands of dollars that it will take to replace equipment damaged by the storm remains a challenge.
“I’m overwhelmed and a little scared,” said Vanzant, who turned 54 years old on Monday.
It’s the same uncertainty she felt when the president visited Oct. 31 and hugged her — the embrace captured in a photo that became the definitive image of the president in South Jersey, promising to bring immediate disaster aid to the area.
“In no shape or form do I want to be negative on the president,” she said. “(But) it’s a month later and I’m in the same position.”
The national attention that came from the president’s visit brought the city some benefits — from residents who said they immediately received housing vouchers to a community center able to draw donations from across the country.
But some small business owners, including Vanzant, whose insurance would have covered the damages had a fire or heavy winds caused the damage rather than flooding, said the benefits were less than they had hoped.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency only assists individuals and not families. A partner agency, the Small Business Administration, offers businesses disaster loans with an interest rate of 4 percent if the applicant “does not have credit available elsewhere,” and 6 percent if they do, according to its forms.
“They brag about these low interest rate loans that aren’t low interest,” Vanzant said. “Where’s the money coming from?”
Disaster loan interest rates are set by Congress and cannot be changed without legislative action, SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said.
Most businesses will qualify for a 4 percent interest rate, and borrow up to $2 million, she said. The 4 percent rate is typically for struggling business owners while the higher interest rate of 6 percent are for businesses with access to assets and a high cash flow, which puts them in a better position to recover in the absence of the federal loan program, Chastang said.
But Joe Fumo, 47, operator of the Brigantine Fish Finder Marina, which lost $50,000 worth of electronic diagnostic equipment in addition to other damages, said he was told SBA loans carried an interest rate of between 4.5 and 5 percent.
“I can get cheaper money on my own,” he said, adding a local bank offered a commercial loan with a rate of 4.75 percent. “There’s no difference.”
But Chastang said the interest rate for SBA business loans are fixed at 4 or 6 percent depending on a business’ assets and cash flow, and does not fluctuate as Fumo appeared to have been told. She also said businesses may find it easier to qualify for an SBA loan than one from a commercial bank.
“The advantage is being able to have access to funds to rebuild your business,” she said. “Given the current credit landscape, business might go to a commercial lender and may have problems.”
Fumo said he applied for several different loans about a week ago, and is waiting to hear back. He carried no flood insurance, and said he needs about $20,000 to get his marina back into working condition. In addition, Fumo’s home is uninhabitable and he has been bouncing from one accommodation to the next.
“It sucks,” he said. “I’m living out of trash bags and my clothes are in bins.”
Other residents in Brigantine have fared better, including Kevin, 44, and Melissa Inskip, 42, who spent the past month replacing waterlogged sheetrock and insulation in their home, repainting and refinishing their floors. They expect to return their two children to the home by Saturday.
The Inskips credited Obama’s visit with getting the couple housing vouchers and funds within a few days.
“What he said would happen, happened,” Kevin Inskip said of Obama. “It happened fast.”
At the Brigantine Beach Community Center, where the president comforted storm victims during his visit, Director Jim Morgan said staff was still handing out supplies to storm victims, although they are no longer taking in donations.
Following the president’s visit, packages from Ohio, Wisconsin, South Carolina and other places across the country started pouring into the center.
“It put us in the national spotlight that we’ve been able to receive donations and aid that we might not have otherwise,” Morgan said. “Everybody was grateful.”
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