Desperately Seeking Disaster Aid

As the owner of a business just blocks from ground zero, I was comforted to hear, in the dark hours following the Sept. 11 attack, that the vaunted Federal Emergency Management Agency was coming to my hometown. The news reports said they were bringing billions of dollars in aid from New York’s new best friend, George W. Bush. Support troops and allies-the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Small Business Administration-were also en route.

They’ll help us rebuild lower Manhattan, I remember thinking at the time. Together, we’d show those Talibastards that Americans are strong, united and rich.

So why do I still feel like a casualty?

My wife and I own what was once a moderately successful small café and catering company called Brewbakers, located at Pearl and John streets. We employed a handful of people and worked for seven years to build the business to its pre-disaster state. One hundred percent of our revenues came from clients in the downtown and Wall Street area: the Oppenheimer Fund, I.B.M., Dow Jones, T.D. Waterhouse, Bridge Communications. Of that, 35 to 40 percent came from catering office parties. Walk-in customers comprised the rest.

My business is down 50 percent since the Twin Towers fell. I’m pretty sure that should qualify me for some kind of governmental assistance, and yet in the nine weeks since my neighborhood became a disaster area, I’ve been able to get little more than $3,000 in aid.

I started early, too.

A day or two after the attack, I went up to FEMA’s offices at 633 Third Avenue. There, I learned the basic rules of engagement. A well-meaning man from Michigan explained to me that FEMA relief was limited to housing. The Home Disaster Loans that FEMA was giving out via the S.B.A. were for the replacement of furniture, carpets and other property damaged by a catastrophic event, or for relocation expenses connected to housing. The man explained that if I was turned down, I could be eligible for a direct grant from FEMA.

He also told me that if I was really in trouble and eviction or foreclosure was imminent, FEMA might be able to save the day. But, he added, until I was on that precipice, no other FEMA help could be offered.

When I patiently explained that my business had been affected, the man from Michigan said that my only option was to apply for a “business” S.B.A. loan.

Remember what S.B.A. stands for? Confused? Just wait.

My patience was running out. I told the welfare warrior that his organization was not dealing with the aftermath of a tornado in Iowa or some other typical FEMA scenario where homes in the path of some force of nature have been destroyed. From my vantage point, things seemed horrifically obvious: A terrorist attack had occurred in the heart of a thriving business district. It had killed more Americans than D-Day or Pearl Harbor, and it had also ruined hundreds of businesses and threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands of employees.

Certainly, I told him, some people who lived in the surrounding area had been temporarily displaced or faced minor damages to their home, but the businesses near ground zero had sustained the most long-term damage. I wasn’t trying to diminish the challenges faced by residents who lived near the Trade Center. I just couldn’t understand why the folks at FEMA hadn’t grasped that massive aid was needed to rebuild this vital downtown business district.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Michigan told me, “but these are the criteria. FEMA is for residential aid.”

I applied for the S.B.A. “business” loan and was turned down for a number of reasons. One of them was my reluctance to personally secure the loan with real property. This is the major reason that other business owners are not applying for these and other “bridge” emergency loans in the first place. Nobody is willing to risk losing both their business and their home or nest egg in the current downtown environment.

At that point, I’d had absolutely no income for three-plus weeks. Brewbakers’ rent and utilities alone average $7,000 a month. My liquidity was evaporating.

“Try the Red Cross,” the S.B.A. guys told me cheerily. “They might be able to help.”

At the Red Cross’ office on Carmine Street, the nice lady from Arkansas told me that they “would help.” Was I unable to get to my house? she asked me. Did I need a place to sleep? Would I like some coffee and a doughnut? She motioned to a table laden with candy, potato chips and other forms of comfort food.

“No, but some aid with my expenses would help,” I said. The Arkansas woman gave a little frown. That wasn’t possible, she said. The Red Cross only gives financial assistance to those who have lost their homes.

Eventually, I found myself talking to a supervisor from Louisiana. He told me that the organization’s policy was changing daily and that he would call if the Red Cross changed its criteria for aid. Again, I gave my speech about the devastation that had been wreaked upon the businesses in and around ground zero.

The supervisor told me I was wrong. Thousands of people lived in the area, he said. He should know. He’d been there for three days already.

To his credit, he did call me two days later to tell me the policy had indeed changed. For one time only, I was eligible for some very small expense money-about $1,500. Then he offered some additional advice. “Try FEMA,” he said. They would help me with a grant because my S.B.A. loan was denied.

The next day, I was back at FEMA’s office. The tired-looking man from southern New Jersey told me that I couldn’t get the grant because I’d been turned down for a S.B.A. “business” loan and not an S.B.A. “personal” Home Disaster Loan. Then the FEMA worker explained that I wasn’t eligible for the S.B.A. Home Disaster Loan because my home was not damaged.

“Try the Red Cross. They can help,” he said. “Or the Salvation Army.”

I went to the Salvation Army. They also gave me a very small one-time-only grant-$1,600-and some advice: try FEMA, or the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program.

I had a new set of initials. The Disaster Unemployment Assistance program is for disaster victims who don’t fit into the traditional unemployment structure. That sounded like me.

But getting information about D.U.A. was almost as impossible as getting a grant from FEMA. One day I spent almost four hours trying to track down an application form for D.U.A. relief. I encountered dead phone numbers and phone operators and clerks who had no clue what I was seeking.

One well-intentioned but typically ineffectual operator at the state unemployment agency’s hot line actually put me on hold for 15 minutes while she contacted her supervisor. When she came back on the line, there was a triumphant tone in her voice. She had gotten me the phone number where I could get a D.U.A. application!

She then proceeded to give me the very same number that, 15 minutes ago, I had dialed and she had answered.

I finally got my application by waiting on line for two hours at the Disaster Relief Center at 80 Worth Street. But the D.U.A. representative told me that before I could get any money from the organization, I first had to apply for regular unemployment, get turned down, then reapply for D.U.A. I was looking at a three-to-four-week process-and even then, I wasn’t necessarily eligible. Try FEMA and the Red Cross, the D.U.A. guy said. He also suggested I look into Safe Horizon, a state program.

At Safe Horizon, I ran into the home-damages barrier again. Business owners did not qualify. Try FEMA, the sympathetic Safe Horizon lady told me.

At this point, I had gone for a month without income. I felt like a pinball bouncing through the relief system, careening off the same bumpers again and again but getting nothing for my efforts. My business was languishing. I had to lay off two employees.

I decided to make one more tour of the organizations, in the hope that they might have changed their rules and regulations.

At the Red Cross’ Canal Street office, not only did I get turned down again, but the senior supervisor there told me that the Red Cross was going to be pulling up stakes now. “We are an emergency organization and the emergency is under control,” she said.

“What about all the millions in donations that were collected and not distributed? Where are you going?” I sheepishly asked her. (This was before the Red Cross changed its mind about what it was going to do with the donations it collected after Sept. 11.) The woman fixed me with a blank stare, but said nothing.

FEMA, D.U.A., Safe Horizon and the Salvation Army-the organization that advertises itself as the final safety net when all else fails-each told me they couldn’t help me, either.

I’m not looking for a handout. What I’d really love is a piece of one of the contracts that the Salvation Army or the Red Cross gives out to restaurants and catering companies to feed relief workers. But for some reason, the Salvation Army saw fit to give just such a contract to a catering firm on Long Island. My business is within blocks of the recovery effort, and they give a $1-million-plus-a-month contract to a company that must travel through bridges and tunnels to bring food to lower Manhattan, while local caterers like me are living on acrid air.

Recently, a bunch of new, smaller organizations have entered the fray, such as the state’s W.T.C. Retail Recovery Grant Program. I’m banging on doors and filling out forms, but every day I edge closer to the precipice. And it’s little comfort that I’m not alone.