07/21/2011 11:03 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

Alabama gets millions in tornado aid, many still wait

By Monique Fields

TUSCALOOSA, Ala (Reuters) - Nearly three months after tornadoes slammed into Alabama, only 18 percent of residents who applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have received it.

Of the more than 87,000 applications filed, 15,641 have been approved so far, bringing more than $65 million for housing and other needs into the state, according to FEMA.

Michael Byrne, federal coordinating officer for FEMA in Alabama, said on Thursday it was too soon to conclude how many residents ultimately will be assisted by the agency.

He was analyzing the number of homeowners in the state who had insurance. While having homeowners insurance doesn't eliminate the possibility of receiving federal assistance, it can reduce the number of residents who receive it.

"We're right in the middle of the fight right now," Byrne said. "I think we're going great guns and working every angle we can to make sure every person eligible for FEMA in the state gets it."

Tornadoes ravaged the southeastern United States on April 27, with at least 50 tornadoes in Alabama alone resulting in more than 230 deaths in the state.

Since then, Alabama residents have received $47 million for housing repairs or rental assistance and more than $18 million to repair or replace personal property, such as cars.

More than $73 million has been provided to those who need loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. SBA is a FEMA partner during disasters and provides low-interest loans to residents whose homeowners insurance falls short of what is needed.

The deadline to seek federal assistance ended on Monday, and the amount of aid sent to the state was expected to climb.

So far, FEMA has helped remove more than 8.7 million cubic yards of debris in Alabama. That's enough to fill 67,000 18-wheel tractor-trailers, said Mike Stone, a FEMA spokesman.

Residents appreciate the assistance but said they will need more to rebuild their lives.

Angel Billingsley, 37, lost her home and her job at a thrift store when a tornado roared through her Tuscaloosa County neighborhood.

She and her husband received $6,000 in housing assistance, but the money didn't last long. Billingsley said they spent it on hotels, gas and food.

"When you don't have a place to live, that's not a lot of money," she said.

The couple, who now live with family, have appealed for additional assistance and are waiting to hear if they get it.

Though emergency officials said it will be years before residents like Billingsley fully recover, FEMA is receiving good marks for its response so far.

The agency has worked "quite well" with state and local agencies, said David Hartin, director of the Emergency Management Agency in Tuscaloosa.

"Anytime we have a question, we can get it answered," he said. "Anytime we need assistance, we can get it."

Don Hartley, an Alabama Emergency Management Agency supervisor, has worked 33 disasters as a volunteer and an employee.

"This, by far, especially when you consider the size and scope of it, has been the best response I've ever seen," he said.

Hartley attributed the smooth response to FEMA flooding the state with more than 1,000 employees, who provided information, asked questions and helped residents complete forms.

FEMA also opened 49 disaster recovery centers, allowing it to better coordinate with local and state officials.

Billingsley said the beginning of the FEMA process worked out fine. Appealing for additional assistance is what keeps her dialing FEMA telephone numbers several times a week.

"I have done everything they've asked me to do," she said. "It's a long process."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)