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Why hurricane season is a big deal at this government agency

Ben Werschkul
DC Producer

When images emerge of relief efforts after a major hurricane in the U.S., it’s almost always people from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in view: their windbreakers and their trailers. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is another government agency that might deserve a mention.

“We're one of FEMA's closest partners,” says Alex Contreras, a director at the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance. He joined Yahoo Finance's YFi PM to discuss the agency's disaster mission and their approach to the 2019 hurricane season.

As of Thursday, there were six active storms around the United States, tying a record. One of the storms, Imelda, has caused severe flooding in southeastern Texas after dumping more than three feet of rain in the area.

The SBA is known for its work helping entrepreneurs nationwide and they've cultivated an important role in supporting local economies after a disaster like a hurricane.

“We provide low-interest disaster loan assistance to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes, and private nonprofit organizations” says Contreras. A small business can obtain a loan to continue operating after a disaster even if they haven’t sustained physical damage.

They can also be involved in an area for years. The SBA is still processing a few straggling loan applications from the big three hurricanes of 2017: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. As of Sept. 19, the SBA had approved over $3.4 billion in disaster loans to Houston-area residents and businesses just for Hurricane Harvey.

A display from the U.S. Small Business Administration at a Small Business Financing Fair. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The SBA approved more than $3.9 billion in disaster loans to individuals and businesses recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“What we look at is the pre-disaster status of the business,” says Contreras of the loan process “we're a little bit more flexible than a traditional lender, realizing that these were not planned events that they were expecting.”

The SBA does not yet have a direct role in the recovery efforts from Hurricane Dorian earlier this month or the current flooding in Texas. They could in the months and years ahead. In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper has requested federal dollars for impacted counties. FEMA has announced federal funds that “can be made available as needed.” At the moment, the SBA is awaiting requests for assistance.

Residents in Emerald Isle, N.C., discuss Hurricane Dorian after it ripped through their community on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. (Julia Wall/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The SBA’s role might not start for days or weeks after a disaster strikes but it can continue long after the news media and some other agencies have left.

They have also undertaken increased efforts at education ahead of a disaster. The administration has increased communication efforts directed toward businesses. September is “National Preparedness Month” with hurricane season continuing until the end of November. The SBA recently hosted a twitter chat with a number of partners to educate businesses on issues ranging from protecting business records to best practices when rebuilding after a disaster.

It’s difficult to get the word out until business owners are in the middle of the storm. “Getting people to prepare for disasters has always been a challenge, especially when you're talking about small businesses,” says Contreras. “Making it a priority and actually getting them to do it is just really difficult.”

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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