Hurricane Katrina

Kerry prods SBA to speed disaster loans

With more than 80,000 housing units lost to Hurricane Katrina's fury last year, finding a place to live is a priority for many in South Mississippi, where getting a low-interest government loan seems to be one the most daunting challenges.

Former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., uncorked a plan this week to speed federal loan money to disaster-stricken areas.

The Small Business Administration says it has approved more than $2.4 billion in low-interest loans for homeowners, renters and business owners in the state, through what some applicants claim is a tedious process that involves far too much red tape.

Kerry is promoting a bill designed to overhaul the SBA's Disaster Loan Program. In an e-mail to the Sun Herald this week, he said that only about 20 percent of the $2.5 billion in approved loans has actually made it into the hands of Mississippians.

"The SBA has moved at a snail's pace to get loan money into the hands of disaster victims in Mississippi," said Kerry, the top Democrat on the Senate Small Business Committee. "Out of the more than $2.4 billion that could be rebuilding Mississippi neighborhoods, only $485 million has been distributed."

Kerry's bill would require the SBA to create a disaster plan and practice simulation exercises to better respond to major disasters.

It would authorize disaster loans to nonprofits, including religious organizations, and create a national model for providing bridge loans.

Bridge loans are quick-cash infusions to help businesses quickly return, but the loans offered by private banks often come with much higher interest rates and require a faster payoff.

Kerry's bill would allow states to use Community Development Block Grant money for more accessible bridge loans by eliminating a waiver process states currently have to go through.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.