Before the historic flood in October, Jim Cheatham’s house on Timberlane Drive was filled with treasures.
Cheatham, a 69-year-old retired librarian, said it held paintings, fine furniture, a 7-foot grand piano dating to 1933 and a collection of antiques his parents bought in Europe around 1950. Many of those were ruined when floodwaters overtook his house Oct. 4.
Like many in the Midlands, Cheatham did not have flood insurance. He said his family had lived in the house since 1956 and thought they understood how nearby Gills Creek flooded. His homeowners insurance didn’t provide a dime, he said.
Cheatham said he had comprehensive car insurance and will be able to replace his Jetta. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also awarded him its maximum of $33,000 in disaster aid, and the U.S. Small Business Administration has awarded him a low-interest loan, though he doesn’t yet know for how much.
Stories of FEMA disaster aid falling short of the need aren’t rare, nearly two months after the flooding and just days before the Dec. 4 deadline to apply for aid. But disaster officials say flood survivors should not expect FEMA to rebuild their lives.
Cheatham said he is grateful for the FEMA aid, but it won’t come close to covering what he estimates is about $1 million in damage. It would be “fruitless” to try to replace “inherited items and things obtained over a period of 60 years of collecting,” he said.
“I received the maximum amount available,” Cheatham said. “Would I have liked more? Of course, but that is not the way it is. They did the best they could. What more can I ask?”
Eva Gadsden, a 73-year-old retiree who was flooded out of her apartment on South Beltline Boulevard, said she won’t be able to replace lost treasures of her own.
When she returned to her apartment after the flood, she said, she was “devastated” to see she had lost about $20,000 worth of clothes, furniture, appliances and more – including her glasses and dentures.
Gadsden said while she is grateful for the $6,000 she has received so far from FEMA, she is frustrated she doesn’t have enough money to replace what she lost, including the clothes and the many hats she used to wear to church.
“What are you going to get with $6,000?” she asked.
Disaster recovery officials say residents’ frustration with their lack of aid is understandable but that FEMA should not be viewed as a cure-all.
“There’s the perception that FEMA has bottomless pockets, a perception that FEMA is going to solve all of your problems,” said Col. Kevin Shwedo, the state’s disaster recovery coordinator.
FEMA spokesman Carl Henderson said that is a “big misconception.”
FEMA so far has approved nearly $67.8 million in disaster aid for individuals and households in South Carolina. But less than 28 percent of the more than 90,000 people statewide who have registered for FEMA assistance have been approved for aid, Henderson said.
Many who applied weren’t eligible to receive aid, and others might not have appealed after receiving denial letters, something FEMA has encouraged, Henderson said.
Henderson said FEMA is just one part of the total recovery process, and that the agency isn’t in town to rebuild lives completely.
“FEMA’s role is to get the individual back up to where they are in a home in a livable condition that is safe, sanitary and secure,” Henderson said. “We’re not able to bring the family back to where it was before.”
That is where insurance and other agencies, such as the SBA, come into play. Flooding survivors should file an insurance claim before looking to other sources, such as FEMA, if they are uninsured or under-insured, Henderson said.
FEMA can approve a maximum of $33,000 for each household, though people whose homes were hit hard by the flooding often need more. Those people can then turn to the SBA.
“The SBA is basically the nation’s disaster loan bank. We’re here to provide the long-term relief,” SBA spokesman Michael Peacock said. “We’re going to attempt to get (residents) back to the position that they were in prior to the disaster.”
The SBA can approve a loan of up to $200,000 to homeowners to repair or replace their homes, plus a loan of up to $40,000 for homeowners and renters to replace personal property. Businesses and private nonprofits can receive loans of up to $2 million.
Homeowners and renters statewide, and especially in Richland County, have so far taken advantage.
The SBA has approved more than $83 million statewide in disaster loans for homeowners, renters and businesses, Peacock said. Nearly $72.7 million of that has gone to homeowners and renters, he said.
The SBA has approved nearly $29.2 million in disaster loans in Richland County, the most in the state, Peacock said. The deadline to apply for an SBA loan is Dec. 4.
Other options are available to flooding survivors. Roughly 6,000 residents applied to the state Department of Employment and Workforce for flood-related unemployment benefits. And more than 28,000 people filed into the Word of God Church and Ministries in early November to apply for federal food stamp assistance offered to flood survivors.
Volunteer organizations also have offered assistance. The state is backing the One SC Flood Relief Fund, set up by the Central Carolina Community Foundation to help vulnerable residents who have fallen through the gaps of government aid.
“We are going into the giving season, and we have got South Carolinians that are in need, and we want to step up and help,” Gov. Nikki Haley said last week in announcing the fund.
Gadsden said she does not expect to replace all the valuables the flood took and that she would not be able to repay an SBA loan. She said she is working to apply for food stamps and that she has received help from the Red Cross and her church.
But she said she still needs help and that she is “trusting in God that he will supply my needs.”
Cheatham, who is currently on vacation out of the country, said he plans to buy another car and will look for a permanent place to live when he returns to Columbia.
Even with the FEMA aid and the SBA loan, the flood will be a major financial setback, he said.
“My life will never be the same,” Cheatham said. “Will my life be worse? Only if I make it so. It will be different is all and could be better. I have fewer possessions, thus fewer attachments. Surely that is a good thing.”
Steps for receiving disaster assistance
▪ Make an insurance claim
▪ Apply for FEMA aid (and if denied aid, appeal)
▪ Submit a loan application to the SBA
▪ Seek out other assistance, if necessary
Flood recovery by the numbers
$33,000: Maximum in disaster aid FEMA can award to each individual or household.
$200,000: Maximum loan the SBA can provide to homeowners to repair or replace their homes.
$40,000: Maximum loan the SBA can provide for homeowners or renters to replace personal property.
90,000: Number of people statewide who have registered so far with FEMA for disaster aid.
28 percent: Of those people have been approved for aid.
$67.8 million: Approved so far by FEMA in disaster aid for individuals and households in South Carolina.
8,452: Number of applications for loans the SBA has received so far statewide.
$83 million: Approved statewide by the SBA in disaster loans so far for homeowners, renters and businesses.
$29.2 million: Approved in SBA disaster loans so far in Richland County
How to get help
▪ The deadline to apply to both FEMA and the SBA is Dec. 4.
▪ To apply for FEMA disaster aid, call (800) 621-3362 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, visit disasterassistance.gov or stop by a FEMA disaster recovery center, 27 of which are still open across South Carolina.
▪ Disaster recovery centers will be open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those centers can be found at http://asd.fema.gov/inter/locator/home.htm.
▪ To apply for an SBA loan, visit disasterloan.sba.gov/ela or call (800) 659-2955.