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Center helping storm victims recover

Harry Reeves lost his home and job in the Oct. 3 tornado. He received temporary housing and clothing from the Red Cross, but the jobless, part-time mechanic was unsure of future employment.

Reeves went for help to the joint information center opened Monday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

There he found representatives from the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security, the Small Business Administration and unemployment officials.

"It's kind of up in the air right now," Reeves said, after speaking with a representative from Florida Department of Labor and Unemployment. "I'm hoping they can help me, because if they can't, there's a possibility I might have to go back home to New Jersey."

FEMA primarily will assist people with uninsured losses from the tornado, said spokesman Jay Eaker, but other services are available. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Friday at the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, 11351 Ulmerton Road.

"This is not designed to take the place of insurance, but it will assist people with loans and grants for long-term recovery," Eaker said.

Storm victims without insurance are eligible to receive low interest loans up to $20,000 to replace personal property, $100,000 for home damage and $500,000 for a business. They also can receive emergency rent, grants, unemployment benefits, tax relief and crisis counseling from FEMA.

By 2:30 p.m. Monday, 36 people had stopped by the center. They were asked what losses they incurred, then directed to a counselor, Eaker said.

Depending on the assessment, temporary housing is found and business checks are issued within one week, and individual and family grants are issued within two weeks.

"Some of the houses and mobile homes damaged were vacation homes," Eaker said. "We don't pay for that. We only assist with people's primary needs."

The roof of Don Scali's women's sportswear store on Ulmerton Road was destroyed by the tornado. Disaster assistance counselors directed him to Small Business Administration representatives.

"I haven't found out anything definite yet in terms of money, but they've been very helpful," Scali said. "We've continued working in the back (of the store), but because I'm self-employed, (the tornado) pretty much put an end to my income."

Bill Erwin, FEMA's federal disaster assistance center manager, said homeowners and business owners with insurance should visit the center because their insurance might not cover all damage.

Erwin said people who need disaster assistance but are unable to come to the center can call FEMA's toll-free hot line at (800) 462-9029.