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Coulee Region flood victims are taking advantage of a federal safety net for the money to repair their damaged homes.

Small Business Administration Disaster Assistance Program officials handed out the first two checks - $10,000 each - to two town of Campbell homeowners Thursday. More than $50,000 had been paid out through the Federal Emergency Management Agency by midweek.

"We've got our house on stilts," said Collette Fagan. "That's why this was such an emergency for us."

The money from the SBA is a low-interest loan of 3.3 percent, and payments can be stretched as long as 30 years.

As of Friday, 189 people had called the toll-free number set up by FEMA, and of those callers, 115 were referred to the SBA for possible loans. FEMA spokesman Francis Blake said inspectors have been busy visiting homes to assess damages.

The Mississippi River was above the 12-foot flood stage for more than a month from, April 12 through May 14. By Thursday, it had slipped to 10.8 feet and is projected to fall to about 10 feet by Tuesday.

Fagan's house has structural damage to the foundation from the flood and from the lawn erosion, and she does not have flood insurance. The stilts are being used to brace the house pending repairs, she said.

Bryan Bethke, also in the town of Campbell, received a check. He cannot start repairs yet because water still is in his basement, but his basement walls sustained large cracks from the water pressure. He said he does not have flood insurance, because he was told he was not required to have it when he purchased the home. To obtain the SBA loan he agreed to get flood insurance for the future.

La Crosse Mayor John Medinger lauded the "speedy response" from officials. "I know people sometimes get frustrated by the pace of government," he said.

People with verifiable flood damages still can call the disaster assistance number: 1-800-462-9029. The call should be placed even if you have flood insurance, officials said, and the insurance claim does not have be settled first.

"The sooner you call us, the sooner we can act," said SBA deputy disaster area director Frank Skaggs. "We will process your loan as soon as possible."

Loans totaling more than $132,000 already have been approved. The deadline is July 10.

Loans are available to business owners as well as homeowners. This can include compensation for lost revenue due to flooding, officials said. The SBA will look at the two-year performance of the business to arrive at a loss figure.

Homeowner loans can range from 3.3 percent interest up to 8 percent, and vary according to income and other factors. Bethke said he is expected to begin repaying his loan after five months at $96 a month until paid off. He has accepted $10,000, but can qualify for more than $21,000 if necessary.

La Crosse County Emergency Management Coordinator Al Spaulding said La Crosse, Trempealeau and Buffalo County officials will meet at the end of the month to try to speed help to the various municipalities with damages to public properties.

Some communities can redirect federal block grants for disaster recovery efforts, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1999, the SBA maintained a loan portfolio of more than $40 billion to 468,000 businesses, and provided disaster assistance loans totaling $936 million to 36,000 businesses and residents.

FEMA and state officials have set up a temporary Joint Information Center at West Salem, Wis.

Eleven counties in western Wisconsin are eligible for housing assistance, grants and low-interest loans, while 17 counties are eligible for money to local governments to pay flood-fighting costs.

Other assistance offered by FEMA includes disaster unemployment assistance, home and personal property loans and business disaster loans.

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