Memphians displaced by the historic flooding of the Mississippi River are beginning the long path to recovery, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moves in to dispense disaster relief funding.
"Community relations teams are fanning out into affected areas with flyers. [They're] going to community meetings and meeting with people face to face," said Gary Weidner, FEMA's public information officer. "[We're] making sure that the message on how to apply for FEMA assistance gets out to everybody that's been affected by the flooding."
Flood victims can apply over the phone, online, or at one of the disaster recovery centers set up in the hardest hit areas — South Memphis, North Memphis, and northern Shelby County.
FEMA inspectors must complete a home inspection before the financial compensation process can begin. Since many neighborhoods are still flooded, it could be awhile before inspectors are able to start surveying the damage. Weidner says FEMA grants won't cover everything.
"FEMA is not going to give them money to return the house to the way it was before," he said. "It's going to get [the house] returned to make it safe and secure and habitable."
For those without telephone or email access, FEMA has mobile centers set up at the city's emergency shelters: Hope Presbyterian Church, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and Cummings Street Baptist Church. A fixed center will go up at the Shelby County Code Enforcement office this week.
Steve Shular, a spokesperson for county mayor Mark Luttrell's office, estimates that 1,542 people have applied for FEMA assistance at press time.
One such applicant is the Rev. George Turks of St. Paul AME Church in North Memphis. Floodwaters filled up to two-thirds of his church, destroying everything but the pulpit.
"We have to go through the [Small Business Association] and take out a loan, because they do not give money to churches to rebuild," Turks said. "That's my only choice."
Although churches and businesses are not eligible for individual assistance grants from FEMA, business owners are encouraged to register with FEMA so they can apply for lower-interest-rate, disaster-assistance loans from the Small Business Administration. Even if a business is turned down, the step of registering with FEMA could help procure assistance elsewhere, from nonprofits or other charitable institutions.
Turks will use the SBA loan to rebuild in a new location.
"We'll never be able to go back in the church that's been under water because there's too much damage," Turks said. "And we will not build in a flood zone again. It may never flood again, but we will not take that chance."