Tom Nocera keeps his suitcase packed at all times.
That's because Nocera, a "disaster-reservist" for the United States Small Business Administration, could get the call at any time to leave his Florida home and assist relief efforts in disaster-stricken areas across the country.
Nocera, who handles public affairs for the SBA, has worked in the aftermath of events like Hurricane Katrina and last year's Nashville floods. After arriving in the Chattanooga area to help the recovery from last week's storms, he expects to be here for at least two months.
"We're no longer in the emergency phase, we're in the recovery phase," Nocera said in an interview with Nooga.com. "The recovery phase is the longest. We're looking at thousands of disaster survivors in the area."
When major disasters hit, the SBA is the primary source for federal funds and long-term recovery assistance. Nocera emphasized that loans offered by the SBA were for homeowners, renters, and non-farm businesses of all sizes.
"Don't let the word 'business' mislead you," he said. "My job while I'm here is to make sure that information about the SBA program gets communicated accurately, so that people aren't operating off of rumors or misinformation."
The primary method of assistance from the SBA comes in the form of low-interest loans, which are available to persons and businesses that were affected by disasters. The loan-program was designed by Congress, to enable those affected by unforeseen catastrophic events to recover with as little adverse impact as possible.
Pending approval, renters may be eligible for loans of up to $40,000 to repair or replace their disaster damaged personal property. Homeowners may be eligible for up to $200,000 to repair their real estate, and businesses may be eligible for up to $2 million to repair or replace business assets.
"The SBA program is something that needs to be explained well," Nocera said. "It's not something that you can wrap your head around until you need it."
Nocera described the program as a hand-up from taxpayers to taxpayers, instead of a hand-out from the government. "The money that gets paid back from the loans becomes available to fund our programs for the next disaster," he said.
During the recovery for last year's floods in Nashville, Nocera said that the SBA extended over $150 million in loans. He estimated that the amount lent out for the storm-affected population in the Chattanooga area could reach the tens of millions. "I haven't heard any hard numbers yet, but it will certainly going to be that much," he said.
Interest rates for the loans vary between 2.6 and 6 percent, depending on the amount of credit available and the monthly budget of the borrower. Nocera said that the SBA handles loan applications on a case by case basis, with multiple opportunities to appeal in the event of a loan not being granted.
"It usually takes ten days for the processing to take place to know if a loan will be granted and then no more than a week after that to have the money electronically deposited into an account," he said.
Since the President's disaster declaration last week, area residents have a 60-day window mandated by law to apply for federal assistance. Before applying for an SBA loan, homeowners and renters are required to have a FEMA number, which can be obtained by calling (800) 621-FEMA, or through the agency's website.
Nocera stressed urgency for residents to get registered for those applications as soon as possible, and said that disaster relief centers were being set up in all of the counties under the federal declaration.