CHALMETTE, La. — Five years after Hurricane Katrina, Jay Young is still haunted by the desperate voices on the other end of the telephone crying and begging for help.
As a loan officer for a federal agency that was supposed to help homeowners and businesses get back on their feet, he had high expectations he could make a difference. But he recalls how he was forced to turn away many qualified applicants because of what he says was pressure from his supervisors to close files quickly.
Karen Bazile remembers having high hopes, too, when she applied for a loan from the same agency, the Small Business Administration, to rebuild her home in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette. While she ultimately got the money, she quickly lost faith as she struggled with different loan officers who misplaced her paperwork and told her she had only 48 hours to find and fax critical documents or her application would be canceled.
Some 160 miles to the east, in Alabama, Erik Schmitz, former commodore of the Fairhope Yacht Club, takes in a breathtaking view of Mobile Bay from a posh new clubhouse rebuilt in part with a $1.5 million disaster loan, the maximum from the SBA. For Schmitz, the entire loan process was smooth sailing.
While stories of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s contaminated trailers and the Army Corps of Engineers’ inability to shore up the levees captured the headlines in the aftermath of the deadly storms of 2005, the bungling of the SBA, the lead federal agency helping people rebuild their homes and businesses, has largely been untold.
The sagas of Schmitz, Bazile and the SBA’s Young, who worked out of the agency’s massive loan processing center in Fort Worth, Texas, collectively reveal how the SBA failed in so many ways, an ominous experience as the agency prepares to play a similar role in the aftermath of the massive BP PLC oil spill.
These are stories of a mismanaged bureaucracy that still hurt half a decade later: tales of applications for low-interest disaster loans that should have been approved but were not, of applications deleted from the SBA computer system for no valid reason, of impossible-to-meet deadlines manufactured to clear backlogs, and of a process so chaotic and painful that thousands simply gave up.
An Associated Press investigation based on more than 200 interviews, thousands of pages of public documents obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act and a first-ever detailed computer analysis of SBA data from hurricanes Katrina and Rita found that:
Only 60 percent of the loan money approved by SBA ultimately reached applicants. Over the years, SBA officials have told congressional committees that the agency had approved more than $10 billion in loans, touting it as an example of how SBA had helped those on the Gulf Coast. However, according to the data, only $6.1 billion of the approved loan money has been dispensed. SBA officials say many applicants never accepted the loans because they found other ways to rebuild, including using insurance money. But many former applicants said in interviews that they just walked away because the entire process took too long and was too complicated.
Of the money SBA did distribute, $357 million — nearly 6 percent — has never been repaid. More than a dozen people whose loans were charged off told the AP that the agency hasn’t contacted them about repayment.
Country clubs, yacht clubs, exclusive private schools and megachurches received millions in loans from the agency founded in 1953 with a mission to “aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns.” Some of the more substantial operations rebuilt bigger and better, often contradicting SBA rules that say damaged buildings should be repaired only to their original state.
Homeowners and businesses in higher-income areas were more likely to get a loan than those in lower-income areas, according to AP’s analysis of SBA data by ZIP code. “The truth is that only the wealthy moved through the system easily,” said Gale Martin, another former SBA loan officer. “If you were of a certain income, we funded you first, which is not the way the system is supposed to work.” Martin contended that contrary to the SBA mission to especially help people who didn’t always have the means to rebuild, applicants with higher credit scores and bigger incomes were cherry-picked for processing first because those files could be closed quicker.
“We’re not proud of what happened during the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes,” said James Rivera, deputy associate administrator of SBA’s office of disaster assistance. “Our response was slow, but we’ve learned from our mistakes. We’ve had five years to reflect on this.”
Associated Press Michael Kunzelman, Holbrook Mohr, Cain Burdeau, Troy Thibodeaux and Jason Bronis contributed to this story