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Pinellas to be assessed for need for federal relief funds

A team of local, state and federal officials will start interviewing Pinellas County tornado victims today to see if federal help is needed.

If parts of Pinellas are declared a federal disaster area, victims could be eligible for a wide range of grant and loan programs. But federal aid may not be nearly as visible or massive here as it has been in South Florida.

The reason? Hurricane Andrew and Saturday's no-name storm had two strikingly different types of victims.

Andrew threw its biggest punch at Homestead and Florida City, home to thousands of poor people who had little to begin with. And what they had generally wasn't insured.

By contrast, the Pinellas mobile home parks and single-family neighborhoods hit by Saturday's tornadoes house mostly retirees and working people. Many of them own their homes and insure them against catastrophe.

Federal disaster assistance is geared to people with little or no insurance. And the best of what the federal government offers isn't all that much these days, said David Bilodeau, Pinellas emergency services director.

One of the federal grants would be $11,400 for uninsured victims who meet certain criteria, Bilodeau said. "This is for people who are barely getting by and who took a hit." The money could be used for a downpayment on a new mobile home. "Or this might get you the first month and the last month of rent, a few months rent after that, the chance to get some furniture, maybe the kitchen utensils, enough to get your head slightly above water."

Other victims might be eligible for certain federal home-loan programs if they can prove they can't get a loan on the open market. These loans carry relatively low interest rates _ as low as 4 percent _ but they still can put a burden on disaster victims. They must be piggybacked onto existing mortgages, which means "you might be looking at an effective interest rate of 13 or 14 percent," Bilodeau said.

The other big loan program offers 8 percent loans for disaster victims who essentially could qualify for an open-market loan. Bilodeau said commercial loan rates are hovering in that range or lower, depending on the type of loan.

"Eight percent in this day and age isn't all that attractive," he said.

Bilodeau recalled how Pinellas worked to secure disaster assistance homes flooded when a creek overflowed during heavy rains in 1988. At first, homeowners were excited about the federal help. Then they crunched the numbers and discovered it wasn't much help at all.

"It's a real tough issue," Bilodeau said.

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