By From the Lowell Sun
IT'S A DISASTER AREA
By HILLARY CHABOT, Sun Staff
LOWELL -- After nearly two weeks of enduring the worst, homeowners and businesses inundated by the floodwaters finally have some good news.
President Bush yesterday declared flood-damaged areas of Massachusetts a disaster area, a move that makes victims eligible to receive as much as $27,000 in federal aid.
City Manager John Cox called the announcement a step in the right direction.
"At least the process (for getting aid) can begin," Cox said.
Those affected by the flood could have checks within a month, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA provides grants for rental assistance, minimal home repair and disaster unemployment. The top amount a property owner can receive is $27,000, but the most they can get to repair their home or business is $5,000.
Victims can also apply for low-income loans to fix their homes through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Home and business owners must call 1-800-621-FEMA to register, and a FEMA inspector will come to look at the damage to their home or business within a matter of days, depending on how many register, said spokesman Marty Bahamonde.
Once the inspector determines the extent of the damage, grants are distributed quickly.
"From the time they see an inspector, we average seven to 10 days for them to see some sort of aid," Bahamonde said.
FEMA officials will be working at the disaster recovery center at Olney Hall on UMass Lowell's North Campus to help flood victims sort through which grants or loans they can receive, said Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey.
"It should be a one-stop location for residents to obtain information," Healey said.
State officials will now begin looking at how they can help flood victims. Healey said she has been meeting with Senate President Robert Travaglini and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi to discuss how the state "might be able to step up and fill in some of the gaps" left by the federal programs.
"We understand the amount of money available to businesses and individuals is limited and might not help everyone fully renovate their house or get back on their feet," she said.
President Bush granted individual assistance for Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties, in addition to disaster declarations for New Hampshire and Maine.
Sen. Steven Panagiotakos said he is glad residents with gutted homes won't be on hold any longer, but he worries the federal funding won't be enough.
"My major concern is for individual homeowners. We can't compensate people like an insurance policy, but we will try to supplement them where FEMA is lacking," said Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat.
U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan said the aid didn't come fast enough.
"I wish the president had acted sooner, but this is good news for Massachusetts. Help is finally on the way for individuals," Meehan said.
Gov. Mitt Romney requested the disaster declaration last week to get aid faster to home and business owners.
Cities and towns may also be eligible for municipal aid from the federal government for infrastructure repairs. Healey hopes to file a request for municipal assistance by next week.
FEMA officials visited cities and towns to assess the damage to infrastructure earlier this week. If FEMA finds more than $7.5 million in damage, Romney can apply for federal aid. Lowell officials have estimated $25 million in infrastructure damage alone.
"The governor and I feel confident we will meet the threshold," Healey said. "We expect we will be able to get the information from FEMA next week, and we're prepared to fire off a letter to the president as soon as we have those numbers in hand."