Published November 20, 2012
Less than a week after President Obama's visit, accusations of government bureaucracy and broken promises of help have stifled the recovery of small businesses in Staten Island.
Local business owners from one of the worst hit sections of the New York borough complain that if help is not forthcoming, they stand to lose everything they have worked so hard for.
"My business is my life," said Diana Petrone a small business owner who lost her store to the storm. "Without my business I can't afford to pay my house bills, it's like a snowball effect and without my store my 15 employees can't pay their bills."
Petrone, who launched her "Not Just Bagels" business in 2004, has been living a nightmare since Hurricane Sandy struck three weeks ago. Sandy's tidal surge, a sewage overflow and flooded marshes swept away the entire block where her store once stood, leaving her with nothing.
The single mother of a 3-year-old daughter is in despair. Her fiancé’s house also was destroyed and now she's looking to rebuild her life, but she's being held back by government red tape.
Petrone said that although she had registered with FEMA for disaster assistance, she doesn't qualify for any direct FEMA help since her business, and not her residence, was destroyed. She cited a recent example of when FEMA had given out $600 Home Depot vouchers to help with residential losses which she could not apply for given her status as a business owner.
FEMA advises business owners to first register for disaster assistance with them, and, while they don't offer direct financial assistance, they do offer counseling on how to get aid by referring businesses to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for help, and that help comes through the way of a low-interest loan which is awarded based on the financial viability of that business. Still, the loan is not guaranteed.
According to its website, "SBA provides loans to homeowners, renters, businesses and organizations to repair or replace real estate, personal property, equipment and business assets that have been damaged in a disaster."
Petrone said it took her and her accountant four hours to fill out the forms for an SBA loan. She said that since the initial application, it had been sent back three times for more information. Petrone, who already has a sizable business loan, estimated that she would need another $100,000 loan to get back to where she was before the storm hit and destroyed her business.
"They are making this so non-user friendly," she tearfully said. “It's a hard process and there's nothing else out there to help ... it's impossible, impossible."
Petrone is far from being alone. Harry Tatla, owner of a Citgo gas station down the road from her, said he was inundated with water and his gas pumps and business were destroyed.
He said that the process took him a few hours and even though an SBA inspector had surveyed his ruined property, he was asked for even more paperwork and said it had turned into a bureaucratic nightmare. "We need help; they are not helping us and are making things hard."
Tatla, who has had his business for nearly 18 years, had to let three employees go and is fearful about his future, and the future of his family. The father of three is close to despair and is worried about losing his house if he can't get his business back together.
When asked about the specific cases mentioned in this report, Michael Lampton a spokesperson for the SBA acknowledged that there will always be a case where problems arise. Lampton said "We are trying to do everything we possibly and humanly can, to assist and make that process as easy and as fast as possible."
After checking on both Petrone and Tatla another spokesman from the SBA said that the reason for the delay was that the correct paperwork had not been filed and that until they have all they need they can't make a determination as to whether the applicants will qualify for the loans.
When told of this, Petrone said that her accountant has been in constant touch with the SBA and has yet to get a satisfactory response as to what is needed.
Making things worse for Tatla, Petrone and other businesses in the area, is the fact that their insurance companies won't pay up as neither had flood insurance because they don't live in a flood zone. And despite them both paying a fortune in insurance premiums over the years, they've been told that they are on their own.
"I have no business, I have no income, it's being made so hard to get help." Tatla says of his situation.
Diana Petrone said there are many other businesses in her area that are going through what she is. She said given her position as president of her company, she doesn't even qualify for unemployment benefits. "I feel left out, I've been an upstanding citizen paying all my taxes my whole life, but where's the help when I need it?"
Petrone said she and her accountant have been looking for grants but nothing is available to her, so unless the loans come through she will be in a very difficult position.
"I'm a citizen; I can't understand how nobody comes in to help, and I'm just confused -- and at this point I'm staring at this road ahead of me and I'm just confused as to where my help is."
Despite all the obstacles Petrone is facing, she is optimistic for the future. She says that she has been boosted by the incredible outpouring of moral support from neighbors, family and friends.
"We will be back bigger and better than before," she defiantly says.
Ben Evansky can be followed on Twitter @globalposts