Some homeowners are still looking for help a month after the floods

By Lynn R. Parks

More than a month after their mobile home was flooded, the Wheatley family are living in a 20-foot camper. Their home, which Brenda Wheatley said had three feet of water in it, is still sitting on its Hastings Estates lot, black mold slowly creeping along floors and walls. "The floors are falling in," Wheatley said. "A lot of stuff was ruined, including the carpet, all the living room furniture and some bedroom furniture. There is a lot in there that still needs thrown away. And there is nowhere to store what we can save." Following the June 25 storm that dumped up to 13 inches of rain in western Sussex, President Bush declared the county to be a disaster area. Public agencies and local governments were able to apply for federal funds to compensate them for expenses they incurred during the flood. At the same time, the federal government determined that there were not enough homes damaged in Sussex for the disaster declaration to extend to homeowners. Individuals whose homes were damaged, like the Wheatley family, were not eligible for any assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Then, the Small Business Administration, following its own declaration of disaster, offered low-interest loans to owners of small businesses as well as to homeowners and people who were renting property. But on Friday, John Applegate, one of two SBA representatives who have set up camp in Seaford, said that his agency will not be able to help everyone who needs help. "We are realizing that the government isn't going to be able to do everything," said Applegate. Of the 80 people and business owners who had applied for loans through the end of last week, Applegate estimated that about 10 families were deemed to be ineligible. With no federal grants and now no federal loans, that leaves those families out in the cold. Among them is the Wheatley family. "I feel like we are screwed," said Brenda Wheatley, 44. "I love my house. But I don't see any way we can get back in there." Wheatley said that because her husband, Coleman, a handyman, did not pay taxes on his earnings, they do not qualify for a federal loan. Recipients of SBA loans have to be current with their taxes, as well as with payments on any other federal loans they may have. A second family, who lives in Mobile Gardens and who didn't want their names used, also have been told there is no government help for them. The coupleÑshe is 57, he is 59Ñhave just his Social Security disability check of $800 a month to live on and the SBA determined that they do not have enough money to pay back a loan. "We make a huge effort to help people qualify," said Jack Thomas, the second SBA representative who is helping people in Seaford apply for loans. Even so, "there has to be a reasonable expectation that they will be able to pay the loan back." The Mobile Gardens woman, who has a disability claim pending with the Social Security Administration, said that the flood water did not come inside her home. It did, however, come up to right underneath the floorboards, soaking all the insulation that kept cold air out in the winter. That insulation is still there, torn from its moorings and lying where the flood waters left it. "My husband has had three major back operations," the woman said. "He can't get under there to pull it out. And I am on oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I certainly can't get under there. We are at a standstill. I don't know where to turn. "What upsets me the most is that people with good incomes and jobs can get the loans," she added. "That's fine, but what happens to people in this situation? For people in really bad shape, there is nobody to help."

Community group could help
Applegate said that the people he and Thomas have had to turn away "get upset" when they are told that they do not qualify for a loan. "They are very sad," he added. "They don't know where to turn next." And in fact, there is little place to turn. Thomas and Applegate refer people to the Red Cross. But both Wheatley and the woman who lives in Mobile Gardens said that they called the Red Cross and were told there was no help available. "They brought sandwiches and cleaning supplies here one day," Wheatley said. "But then I called and asked them for some drinking water, and they said they couldn't do anything." Applegate, who represented the SBA in Florida after two hurricanes ripped through there, suggested that a community, volunteer effort like Rebuild Northwest Florida might be effective in Seaford. "This town has a great volunteer spirit," he said. "The Seaford Volunteer Fire Department has been here more than 100 years. I think that people around here could get plenty of volunteers to help out. They just need to know where the needs are." Such an effort would require organization, Applegate said. "It would take somebody to be proactive," he added. "Somebody would have to be in charge. There would have to be a phone number for people to call who need help, and there would have to be someone to tell volunteers where to go." Many of the problems, like that of the Mobile Gardens couple, could at least partially be solved with simple manual labor, Applegate said. "In a lot of cases, people can help a shovel and a bucket at a time," he said. "A lot of people are still living in their homes, even with mold growing in there. And black mold can kill you." In addition, volunteer assistance could reduce the amount of the loan that families who do qualify for help would have to get, he said. Applegate suggested that anyone interested in organizing a community volunteer group contact Rebuild Northwest Florida for suggestions. "You don't want to reinvent the wheel," he said. "They would probably have a lot of good ideas. And they might know about federal grants that the group could qualify for. "This is the old way of doing things, community people helping community people," Applegate added. "And to my mind, it's a better way of doing things. The government can't solve everything."

For your information:
Anyone interested in helping Brenda and Coleman Wheatley can contact them at 629-7593. People who are interested in helping the Mobile Gardens couple can contact them through the Star, 629-9788. The phone number for Rebuild Northwest Florida is (850) 497-7024.

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Call us with ideas for news and features. We're always looking for good stories to share with readers. Call Bryant Richardson at 629-9788.