Under attack for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina, SBA head Hector Barreto toured Miami businesses damaged by Wilma.

By Jim Wyss

Under fire on Capitol Hill for his agency's sluggish response to Katrina, Small Business Administrator Hector Barreto toured a Wilma-tattered stretch of Miami Monday and vowed to redouble efforts to get emergency loans into the hands of small business.

But so far, help has been slow in coming.

Since Wilma struck, the SBA has received 4,707 disaster applications from home owners and businesses. Of those, 892 have been denied and four, worth $131,500, have been approved. As of Monday, none of those funds had been disbursed.

Of the 86 disaster-relief applications the SBA received after Katrina, three have been approved and 17 denied.

In town to inaugurate a new business assistance center at the Little Havana NET office, on 111 SW 5th Ave., and sign an agreement with City Mayor Manny Diaz to increase cooperation between SBA and city officials, Barreto acknowledged the problem's scope. "I don't think we have ever seen a more challenging time," he said, standing outside a retail strip in Allapattah. "We will be here as long as we need to be with our disaster operation."

The visit comes as the SBA is taking a beating back in Washington. Last month Congress asked the Government Accounting Office to investigate the agency's slow response to Katrina victims. According to the ranking Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), business owners complained of waiting months for an SBA response.

"It is simply unacceptable and inexcusable that not even one small business impacted by Hurricane Wilma has received a loan yet," she told The Herald via e-mail. "This is on top of the fact that as of just last week, eight out of every 10 business loan applications from Hurricane Katrina and Rita had been rejected. . . . [This is] raising serious concern for the small businesses impacted by Hurricane Wilma who cannot afford to wait months on end."

The SBA maintains it was never intended to provide immediate assistance. Rather, its role is to offer long-term, low-interest disaster relief.

Prior to this hurricane season, the agency processed most applications within 21 days. But by its own accounts, the massive damage caused by Katrina has created a backlog that can delay loans up to three months in some instances.

LARGER OPERATIONS

Barreto said the agency has been dealing with the bottleneck.

"In the last two months the size of our disaster operation has quadrupled," he said. "We have 4,000 people working right now and that backlog is being reduced every day."

About 700 SBA employees work on processing loan applications, he said.

The agency has also responded by launching a loan program that can turn around loans of up to $150,000 within 24 hours. That program, called GO Loans, is only available for businesses impacted by Katrina and Rita. The only Florida county eligible for such loans is Escambia.

GO LOANS

But Barreto said he wouldn't rule GO Loans out for the latest hurricane.

"If we discover there is a need [for Wilma victims], we'll definitely take a look at it," he said.

What is certain is that the SBA's performance in the state is under scrutiny.

When the agency closed its Katrina relief center in Miami just days before Wilma struck, it prompted a response from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.

"Talk about poor planning," he said in a release. "Closing a disaster loan center days before a major hurricane hits the region is absurd. . . . Sadly, this is another example of the administration being completely out of touch with the small business owners they are supposed to be helping."

On Monday, as Barreto walked store-to-store talking to merchants in Spanish, his common touch was appreciated.

Blanca Salazar, who owns three retail shops in the 2100 block of Northwest 20th Street, said she was grateful that Barreto had stopped by -- with media in tow -- to hand out information and explain SBA programs.

"I just wish they had told me they were coming with all those television cameras," she said. "I would have done something about my hair."