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Cities to dole out aid to victims

The White House announced Wednesday that President Bush will declare Pinellas County a federal disaster area, but the aid package will provide money only for governments, not individuals.

In addition, Pinellas County will not receive the 100 percent federal funding package awarded Dade County after Hurricane Andrew. The Pinellas package will be 75 percent federal and 25 percent state.

Local officials said they were disappointed the aid is to be tailored to government's needs rather than those of the individual. But they said the 75-25 split of cost was appropriate.

The federal aid earmarked for Pinellas will compensate local government for expenses such as debris removal, overtime pay and damage to public buildings, said Jay Eaker, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Earlier Wednesday, federal disaster officials said they have identified only 11 families that would qualify for federal aid.

Eaker said the low number may simply mean that most owners of damaged homes had insurance. "Or some of the damaged homes may have been vacation homes," he said, "and we only cover primary residences."

Because that number is low, FEMA will look to local agencies for help, said Eaker. "That kind of number can be helped more handily by the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and local volunteer efforts. If we find more later, the question (of federal aid to individuals) can be looked at again."

He said he expects the number of those who qualify for federal aid will grow in the next few days. "We've made a preliminary, two-day assessment. I suspect the county will be looking for more eligible people tomorrow."

How many would have to be found?

"There is no clear answer to that," Eaker said. "It's a subjective decision."

FEMA could reverse its position on individual aid quickly, he said.

The ability of agencies like the Red Cross to help those who will not get federal assistance will be evaluated in the next few days, Eaker said, "so that we can be sure that those in need get help. That's the point here, not who provides it."

Here's a look at the federal programs that will not be available, and how, in some cases, they might be replaced.

Housing assistance. People who lost housing could have gotten checks for three or four months' rent. Eaker said the Red Cross has a similar program, involving vouchers. Red Cross officials could not be reached Wednesday evening.

Home and personal property loans. Victims could have applied for low-interest loans to replace damaged or lost property not covered by insurance. U.S. Rep C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, was told recently by HUD Secretary Jack Kemp that some help may be available from that agency, according to Harry Glenn, Young's spokesman.

Small business loans. Low-interest loans would have been available to replace damaged property or inventory. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is not out of the picture yet, said Glenn. "The SBA can still provide some individual programs," Glenn said, "and they are studying that tonight."

Disaster unemployment insurance. A person who lost a job because of the tornado could have been eligible for 52 weeks of unemployment benefits until a new job was found.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Lawton Chiles formally asked President Bush to declare Pinellas County "eligible for individual and public assistance."

Initial damage assessments have been put at $32-million, Chiles wrote. The assessment teams found 947 tornado-damaged homes, 446 of which are uninhabitable, the governor wrote. "The damage assessment teams estimate that 399 of the uninhabitable homes belong to low and middle-income families . . . many of these families may not be able to qualify for loans and other programs necessary to rebuild their homes.

"In order to meet the unmet emergency needs of these families (temporary housing, home repairs, etc.) individual assistance above and beyond that which is presently available is required."

Chiles estimated that 36 individual and family grants of $4,000 would be needed, an estimate based on the number of low-income families whose homes were made uninhabitable.

Local officials were pleased with the president's declaration, but disappointed programs for individuals were not part of the deal.

"The majority of our people were insured and would not need it," Pinellas Park City Manager Ron Forbes said Wednesday evening. "Still, there's a small number of people who do need that."

Earlier in the evening, for example, Forbes got a call from a pregnant woman who had lost everything in the storm and was not covered, he said.

He had hoped someone like that would be eligible to receive federal grants of up to $11,500 to replace personal property.

"She can't replace her things," he said. "But I'm sure that Pinellas Park and Pinellas County will find a way to bridge that gap, if necessary."

David Bilodeau, director of emergency management and communication for Pinellas County, was disappointed individual grants were left out but said he was pleased overall.

"Something's better than nothing, and as long as there's some benefit to our citizens, some benefit is better than no benefit."

Bilodeau was not surprised the federal government did not offer to foot the entire bill, but instead offered a 75-25 split with the state.

"This is normal," he said. "Andrew was absolutely catastrophic and they did deserve that appropriation, but 75-25 is generally the highest expectation you can have."

Forbes said a one-stop assistance center will open by noon Friday at 6467 102nd Ave. N for those in need of help. Representatives of FEMA, the Small Business Administration, car leasing companies, banks and accounting firms will be on hand, he said.

_ Staff writers Monica Davey, Wayne Garcia and Jenny Deam contributed to this report.