Sunday, March 17, 2013

four and a half months in

The Monday after supplying Dave with the necessary info for SBA I started receiving calls from Misty in Texas, who was processing my application. It seemed that the 2011 return I had filed with the IRS had crossed paths with her request for access to the document. When we arrived in Kingston on New Year's Eve we checked into the Super 8 and made it our base of operations. We spent days scouring Craigslist for apartments and gathering some basic office supplies so I could get started on my taxes, untouched since 2010. The motel had wifi and a nice laser printer. I placed my laptop on the motel room's desk and set up my supplies. My filing cabinet had been one of the last things to be sorted through after the storm. We had removed the bottom drawer and placed it on top of the cabinet, thinking the flooding would be no higher than a few inches. Luckily that bottom drawer had contained the relatively unimportant files- years of magazine clippings from the pre-internet days. We had been encouraged to keep these when I was in art school and I used them periodically for projects. Since the filing cabinet was in the main room, the top drawer was tossed around and files flew everywhere. Or so I assume- I wasn't there for the second day of clean out. The cabinet and its remaining top drawer had been wheeled to the back yard and served for weeks as a cleaning product station.

As Pamela sorted through Bryan's hardware I faced the task of opening the filing cabinet. I tossed most of the wet files but kept a few key documents such as my New York seller's permit, our lease and any important business records. It was truly great that I had placed our expense receipts for the past few years high on top of the closet, where they had remained dry. Before I started my taxes I had to catch up on my sales records, which were incomplete. I was up to date on the recording of sales since I am required to file and pay sales taxes to the state. But I got miserably behind on expenses, which are more complicated since they can be paid for in various ways- cash, debit card, paypal, or by Bryan.

So the chain of financial disfunction I found myself in went something like this: FEMA had given us ZERO for personal possessions because our loss was less than the allowable grant amount. FEMA had determined this because they assumed my income for 2011 to be ZERO. While filling out their online application I had left the income field blank, intending to go back and fill it in later. Since I hadn't yet filed my 2011 taxes, I didn't know what my income was. Curiously I had left other, less important fields blank, and FEMA's software had not allowed me to complete the application. But leave the income field blank and FEMA assumes you had no income. Intentional? Maybe.

Once this error had been brought to my attention, naturally I assumed it could be corrected. WRONG! Once the application is submitted, no changes can be made. I could have asked for a re-inspection of my property, assuming the inspector had made mistakes (and he did) but I could not correct a mistake I had made on the application. The day I found this out, presented to me by a FEMA employee in their trailer in Coffey Park, I started crying. The woman who had been helping me, a mom-like midwesterner with fluffy, bleached-out hair, came around from behind her folding table and hugged me, hard. I was so confused. I had entered the FEMA trailer with three questions, none of which had been answered for me at the main FEMA office on Ikea's second floor, from where I had just come. Now I was being squeezed by this stranger, the bearer of bad news, before she shuffled me off to the SBA office, a tiny room behind a door at the end of the trailer.

I entered the room and I had no idea why I was there. The FEMA rep (whose name I don't know because she, like the first FEMA rep I had spoken to at Ikea, wore her badge so low that when she sat down, it hung below the level of the table) had failed to explain to me FEMA's system for working around problems like these. Or maybe she attempted to explain it to me, but it still remained unclear. You see, even in my devastated and emotional state, I was still thinking logically. And logic has no place in the Federal Government, whose system is based upon rules. And the rule apparently goes, if a person is rejected for a FEMA grant, they are encouraged to apply for an SBA loan. If the loan is rejected, FEMA reconsiders the grant application. This made no sense to me at the time, nor did I fully understand the procedure. All I was told was to apply for a loan, which I knew I didn't want.

Behind a smaller folding table in the tiny SBA office sat a young man to the left and an older, seasoned veteran to the right. They both wore short-sleeved shirts in a dark color and khaki pants. The young, muscular man had dark hair pulled back in a pony tail, and wore a gold chain around his neck and a rather dainty, matching one on his wrist. I spoke to him, indicating that I didn't know why I was there. In front of his tanned, wrinkled, white-haired, heavy-set partner sat the remains of a milky coffee drink in a clear, quart-sized reusable mug with a straw. His partner stood up and tried to steer the conversation in some sort of direction. Did I own a business, he asked me. What kind of business? I worked at home? Did I keep sales records? Did I have a federal tax I.D.? On and on. The questions got increasingly more accusatory, as he seemed to imply that I was making everything up. Why was I even here? Why was this man asking me questions about my business? I thought we were trying to sort out the problem of a mistake being made on my FEMA application. I got up and left and once again the FEMA rep seemed sympathetic. Implying that there was nothing else this office could do for me, she pointed me to the next trailer, where the City of New York had set up shop.

Choked-up and teary-eyed, I entered the City trailer. Noticing my state, I was quickly approached by a young, energetic woman who sat me down to speak with a counselor. The counselor used the same end office in this trailer SBA used in FEMA's. But instead of approaching me from behind a table, from behind a closed door, he pulled his chair up to mine as the woman ran off to get me a bottle of water. I briefly explained my story as the counselor looked me straight in the eyes. When the woman returned she assured me that the City was fully aware of FEMA's shortcomings and they had been prepared to deal with distraught people like me. And here I was- their first case! After calming me down, the pair asked me if I was aware of what the City had to offer- had I applied for SNAP benefits? I returned to the main room and quickly noticed the difference between the City employees and those of the federal government. These people looked normal and helpful. They wore bright orange wind breakers and had clear complexions and bright eyes. I sat down to apply for SNAP benefits (aka Food Stamps) as the energetic woman rushed off the FEMA office to find out exactly what had happened with my case.

To be continued...

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