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A joint investigative series by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio/The Oklahoma Tornado Project on how federal and state disaster aid is being spent in the wake of the violent tornadoes and storms in May 2013.

Auditing The Storm: A Look At Low-Interest Disaster Loans

Kate Carlton Greer
Oklahoma Tornado Project
The Bricktown Hotel and Convention Center was approved for the largest Small Business Administration disaster loan for damage in the May 31 storms

After a federally-declared disaster, the U.S. Small Business Administrationissues low-interest loans to help homeowners and businesses recover. The agency disbursed over $20 million to Oklahomans following last year’s severe weather outbreak in the central part of the state, so we wanted to look into exactly what it takes to get one of those loans. 

On any given weekday, semi trucks and cars whiz past the Bricktown Hotel and Convention Center, two miles east of Downtown Oklahoma City. On May 31, 2013, though, the roads were much emptier.

This YouTube video shows the sky darkening around the hotel as tornado sirens blare. Most of the severe weather that day occurred out in El Reno and then spawned storms through South Oklahoma City, Moore and Norman. Several businesses near the Bricktown Hotel and Convention Center escaped seemingly unscathed, but owner Tom Seabrooke says damage to his property was significant.

“The roof was torn off, so a bunch of rooms got soaking wet. There was just a lot of damage… hail damage on the roof,” he said.

Seabrooke got less from his insurance company than he was hoping so he applied to the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program. The money comes from the U.S. Treasury and consists of low-interest loans to help restore properties to their pre-disaster conditions.

Last November, his business was approved for a loan of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, the largest, single disaster loan issued in the state.

SBA spokesman Rick Jenkins says there are three main questions the agency asks before approving disaster loans.

“Is the damage eligible? Does the applicant have the ability to repay a loan because they are low-interest loans? And does the applicant have a credit history that shows that have a willingness to repay their obligations? In other words, do they have a reasonable credit history that shows they pay their bills on time?” Jenkins said.

During the next step of the process, a field inspector verifies the damage at each property site.

“They go and walk through the property with the applicant, whether it's a homeowner or a business owner or a renter and with that individual, we find out what it is that they've lost,” Jenkins said.

The application then goes to a loan officer – someone who looks into an applicant’s credit history.

Seabrooke has had financial trouble in the past and was behind on the hotel’s mortgage when the storm hit, but Jenkins says the agency tries to be flexible here.

“We try to make every loan that we can make, but we still have a responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure that disaster loans can and will be repaid.”

There were nearly 2,500 SBA applications submitted in Oklahoma after the 2013 storms, but less than 40 percent were approved.

Most borrowers deemed to be eligible are offered an interest rate below market value. Homeowners generally receive a rate under 2 percent. For businesses, it’s 4 percent. Some applicants may receive a higher rate though. It all boils down to one thing.

“It's what we call credit-elsewhere,” Jenkins said. “For those who are well off and who can fund their recovery without the need of federal disaster assistance, they can still get a loan at the market rate.”

Seabrooke’s financial situation guaranteed him a lower rate. But it’s a lengthy process for the SBA to reimburse him for repair costs, and he’s only spent a fraction of his loan so far.

Even with the loan, he says the future of his business look bleak. But without the help, he says his hotel would’ve definitely closed. 


The Oklahoma Tornado Project is made possible by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond.Donate online, or by contacting our Membershipdepartment.

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