DISASTER BUM
1973

 Click on Images to Enlarge!

To learn about how I came to work with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Disaster Loan Program, see My Start with SBA

  “Ski bums” are those who follow the best snows.  “Surf bums” follow the best waves.  Since as early as Hurricane Camille in 1969, SBA had amassed a group of temporary workers it could call on when disasters occurred.  Officially referred to as the “disaster cadre”, the workers called themselves “disaster bums.”  Their phones would ring, they’d run to the nearest SBA office to get sworn back into Federal service and they’d then head out to the stricken area.  When the work had wrapped up, if they were lucky, they’d head to another disaster where work wasn’t finished.  They would otherwise just head home and await the next phone call.  As I later learned during my nearly-3 years of service as a disaster bum, it was very important to get sworn in before heading out.  That way, one would be qualified to get not only mileage from their “home office” to the disaster area but also get the all-important per-diem living expense all the time they were there.  Anyone foolish enough to leave without being sworn in would find themselves as a “local hire” entitled to neither of those “bennies.”  In May of 1973 I was already “on the books” as a temp in Wilkes-Barre, having quit my job as a bank examiner to stay with SBA in the summer of 1972.   My job assignment simply changed from Pennsylvania to Illinois.

  As was typical, I reported in to the nearest SBA District Office where the full-time career employees were organizing the whole show.  In this case, it was Springfield, Illinois.  The flooding we were to cover had happened down in the southern part of the state, so Springfield further assigned me to go to Jerseyville.   I was fortunate in getting laid off in Wilkes-Barre when I did for, had that occurred 2 weeks later, the Illinois effort may have already been fully staffed.  As it was, I got in on the “ground floor” and was part of the initial establishment of the Jerseyville Disaster Office.

 

Bob Raniewicz and Bill Roy (Loss Verifiers), Dennis Collins (Office Manager), Rich Olson (Loan Officer.)

In addition to the above professional staff, we also hired one local girl to handle the clerical duties.  I’ve forgotten her name.

 

Ron at his desk and at the motel with his 1970 Chevelle Malibu.

As I later learned, on this, my first disaster away from home, I was quite lucky.  Later disasters covered a much wider area and wiped out a lot of primary homes.  That resulted in huge crews of utility workers and Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers grabbing most of the available motel rooms well before SBA folks would show up.  We Feds would always have to wait until a state’s governor made his own disaster declaration.  Then he’d ask for Federal help. Only then, after an initial damage survey, would there be a Presidential declaration and we disaster bums would jump to it.   Our entire crew found lodging at the Highway House Motel about 15 miles south of Jerseyville in Godfrey, Illinois. Jersey County officials found space for us in their courthouse. 

The Illinois River and the Mississippi River meet at Alton, Illinois (near St. Louis) and our office in Jerseyville lay just a little north of that intersection.   The flooded areas we covered lie on both banks of the Illinois River.  To the west of Jersey County lie a peninsula comprising  Calhoun County, Illinois and, thus, we also covered the east bank of the Mississippi.   The west bank of the Mississippi was in a different SBA Region and was administered by a different crew of disaster bums I never met. 

 

“1) and 2) the landing of the Kempsville Ferry (which crosses the Illinois River) just north of Jerseyville.  3) near Alton, Illinois.  Note the St Louis Gateway Arch in the mid-background.  4)  The east bank of the Mississippi River on the west side of Calhoun County, Illinois.”

This disaster area was rather narrow, compared to the widespread damage from Hurricane Agnes in Wilkes-Barre. As such, very few primary homes were affected and damage was limited, for the most part, to summer “cabins” along the rivers.

 

“1) The Jersey County courthouse.  2) A destroyed mobile home “summer cabin.” 3) Our Lady of the Rivers statue that sits in the Mississippi River.”

We ran into a problem granting loans almost as soon as we opened our office.  On May 31, 1973 the US Senate cut off funding for the bombing in Cambodia and our loan funds appropriation was included in that bill.  The advice from Springfield was that we’d continue to accept loan applications, we’d send our Loss Verifiers out, and then we’d process the loans up to the final signatures.  That worked out and, within a week or so, our funding got approved and we sent several huge packages of loans up to Springfield to have the final documents drawn up. 

Another problem arose concerning many of the summer “cabins” that had been damaged along the rivers.  A goodly number of them were not “real estate”, per se, but rather large pieces of personal property because they sat on land leased long-term from the US Army Corps Of Engineers.  The Corps controlled the river banks for flood control purposes and, as such, the leases with the Corps spelled out exactly what type of structures were allowed.  For the most part, these dwellings were built on stilts high above anticipated flood levels.  I’d estimate that they were 15 feet above the ground.  Unfortunately, the rivers crested at about 20 feet in the Spring of 1973, severely damaging many structures and even wiping others completely off their stilts.  Whereas actual landowners who suffered losses could provide copies of their deeds to prove ownership, in the case of the stilted cabins on rented land, we looked at the leases.  We found that, often, the actual original lease was dated to a former owner decades ago and we had to follow the trail of subsequent assignments to reach the current owner of the cabin.  In studying the leases, we found one very interesting item.  They contained a clause that, essentially, held the government harmless for any damage, i.e., the cabin owners had “assumed the risk” and were ineligible for Federal loan funds.  Upon first spotting that clause, we stopped all work on those loans.  We allowed applications to be filed but we didn’t even send the Loss Verifiers out. Rather than issuing a denial letter, we merely sat back and awaited further instructions from our higher-ups.  After about two weeks, the word came down.  These loans WERE being approved in SBA Region 8 on the other side of the Mississippi, so we were to follow suit.

I was faced with one problem that I absolutely could NOT solve.  Archeologists from the  Cahokia Mounds historical dig sites (see http://www.cahokiamounds.com/cahokia.html came in to apply for funds.  My theory in loan making (as well as elsewhere in life) has always been to initially tell someone “NO”, leaving open the possibility that, later, the answer may change to “Yes.”  That beats the heck out the reverse, i.e., having to explain to someone that their hopes, initially high, had to be dashed.  In the Cahokia case, that theory served me well.  The Cahokia group were simply not a “business” having any demonstrable repayment ability.  They were more properly classified as a non-profit agency that subsisted on various state (and probably Federal) grants to do their work.  It took me more than an hour to explain that while, yes, they were likely to get help, it would not be from our agency.  They would need to go back to the sources whence came their usual operating funds.

 Our job in Jerseyville was a time-consuming one.  We worked a 66-hour week, with hours from 8 to 6 Monday through Friday and then 8 to 4 on both Saturday and Sunday.  We worked 36 consecutive days !!  Because the damage wasn’t as widespread as that of Agnes in Wilkes-Barre, we had to make no detours around the flood zone.  It was a straight shot up the road from Godfrey to Jerseyville each day, a normal “suburban rat race commuter” existence.    I enjoyed the commute, tuning my car radio to the local rock station and listening to Paul Simon sing “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like A Rock.”  On the other hand, the radio would turn off at the first hint of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go ‘round In Circles.” I hated that song.

 Life at the Highway House motel was enjoyable.  I had a nice room and the restaurant featured such a succulent ham steak that I ate it on 7 of the first 10 nights I spent there.  The motel also had a lounge and I spent more than a few evenings relaxing there, sipping suds, and listening to a local band cover Seals and Crofts’ “Diamond Girl” and Three Dog Night’s “Shambala.”  Just down the road from the motel was a place near and dear to any disaster bum’s heart—a  laundromat.  It was open until late in the evening so we could take care of our laundry despite our long work schedule.  With our per diem at, I think, $25 a day, I was able to easily cover my expenses and even have a little left over.  With a 66-hour week yielding 26 hours of time-and-a-half overtime pay, I had little time to waste all that money.  I had no expenses left behind in Wilkes-Barre, having given up my post-Agnes apartment.  Having grown up quite poor, I wisely spotted this as an opportunity to amass a considerable nest egg in a short time.  Additionally, this was only a temporary position and I had no assurance at all as to when I’d land another career position.  I opened an account with a local Godfrey bank and began sending regular substantial investments to Putnam Investors Fund, a practice I continued during later disaster assignments.

 pic_5.jpg (483318 bytes)

“Statement from Putnam Investors Fund which was forwarded to me by my Dad in Sweet Valley.”

In the latter part of the summer, as work was winding down in Jerseyville, I was sent even further south in Illinois to a town called Olive Branch.  It’s located not far from the southernmost tip of Illinois where the Mississippi meets the Ohio River.  At the very tip is the city of Cairo which, although spelled exactly like the capital of Egypt, is pronounced like Kero maple syrup.  Given the confluence of the two rivers, the entire area is quite prone to flooding and is thought of as quite similar to the Nile Delta. Even the public schools belong to the Egyptian School District.   It’s located on the flyway of migrating birds and is a hotbed of duck and geese hunting.  Olive Branch is a very apt name, for Noah did, after all, have a dove return with exactly that in its beak to show the biblical flood had begun to subside.  The most memorable things about the Olive Branch area are that it was very rural and that SBA employed a very pretty local girl named Madge.

 pic_6.jpg (285420 bytes)

“1) Madge, the clerk/typist.  2) Cattle near the flooded area.”

I only spent about two weeks in Olive Branch, part of which was a one-day trip further east to give a speech about our program.   That small side trip yielded three memories.  As I passed through the city of Metropolis, I couldn’t help but notice its huge statue of Superman.

 pic_7.jpg (62138 bytes)

“Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois.  From http://www.metropolischamber.com/index.htm   
The story of how the statue came to be there can be found at http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/ILMETsuper.html

My second memory of that day trip is that I heard on the local radio station that I hadn’t heard since I was a child of 10 when my Dad worked in the anthracite mines of the Wyoming Valley.  I heard the mine work schedule being broadcast !!  Although southern Illinois is replete with bituminous coal (they even have a town named Carbondale) that is strip mined rather than deep mined like 1950’s anthracite, they still have 24/7 shifts.  Workers listen to the broadcast to see if their shift is working or not.

The third memory of southern Illinois involves something quite silly.  Did you ever notice the varying names on restroom doors depending on the type of establishment in which they’re located?  Beyond the standard, “Women” and “Men”, you’re liable to find “Queens” and “Kings” in a place where folks play cards.  I’ve also encountered “His” and “Hers” or even “John” and Jane” in other places.  Well, what I saw in southern Illinois completely threw me for a loop!  As I said, the area is quite big with bird hunters (and their dogs.)  At the bar where I stopped for lunch, I had occasion to visit their facilities and was positively stunned to see “Pointers” and “Setters.”  It took me the better part of a minute to decided which one I needed !!!

While in Olive Branch, I made my first-ever visit (at age 27) to a Chinese restaurant.  The other disaster bums talked me into going to one in Cairo.  The food looked very strange and I ventured to try the sweet and sour pork, but only after they swore to me that it contained no mushrooms.

Wrapping up in Olive Branch, I returned north to Jerseyville.  That office, too, closed within a few days and our crew headed up to the Springfield SBA District Office.  Before we left, though, the entire town threw us a farewell dinner to thank us for helping them. The main course was catfish that had been caught in the Illinois River and prepared by the head chef from Pere Marquette State Park. Having grown up near the polluted Susquehanna River in Wilkes-Barre, I had been surprised to find that the Illinois was pristine enough to support fishing.

After two more weeks in Springfield, my job in Illinois was finished.  It was mid-September,1973, and the Disaster Branch Manager made a couple of calls on my behalf.  He found more work for me up in Madison, Wisconsin.  Having spent the entire summer in Illinois and not knowing how long I’d be in Wisconsin, I dreaded getting stuck there come wintertime.  I wasn’t looking forward to a drive from Madison to Sweet Valley on icy roads, so I made a deal with the agency. I worked out the cost of driving up there and, eventually, to Pennsylvania compared to driving home and then taking a plane to Wisconsin and back.  I think it may have cost me a few un-reimbursable dollars but it was worth it to me.  I took a few days off, drove my car back to Sweet Valley, and then flew to Madison.  

The work in Madison was unremarkable.  There was only one other disaster bum there, Bob Haukness from North Dakota, and we finished some loans that had been hanging undone since the summer.  The area was quite scenic, with a large number of lakes and their state capitol building was magnificent.

 pic_8.jpg (204856 bytes)

“1)  Wisconsin state capitol building. 2) Unknown church steeple with lakes in the background.  3) Farmer’s market held on Saturdays mornings on a two-blocks-long public square near the capitol."

I stayed in Madison for about two months and then, shortly before Thanksgiving, I received a subpoena!  My presence was requested at the Federal courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania to testify as a prosecution witness.  The first of the cases involved in the Lew Thomas scandal (see details at My Start with SBA was coming to trial.  I said goodbye to Haukness and flew back home.

I’ve forgotten the name of the defendant but he was one of the tenants who’d falsely claimed he suffered a loss at the Tattersall property during the Agnes flood.  SBA employee Lew Thomas had helped him file the bogus loan application.  As the “Reconsideration Loan Officer” in the Wilkes-Barre disaster office, I had approved his loan.  This was my first experience in a criminal trial and I managed to get myself admonished by the bailiff twice before I even got on the stand.  I learned that, during the relative quiet of the voir dire proceeding, one is NOT to chat with others in the audience and neither should one read a newspaper.

I was surprised to spot someone I knew.  The defense counsel was none other than Mario Cipriani, my old Business Law professor at King’s College !  He recognized me as “Spud!” (because I’d grown up on a potato farm)  in a low voice as I passed his defense table on my way to the witness stand.  I testified firmly how I had made the defendant provide a notarized statement from his landlord.  One line of the disaster loan application was subject to two plausible explanations but Cipriani kept cutting me off when I tried to tell the one least flattering to his client.  Frustrated, I turned to the judge and exclaimed “You honor, I’m supposed to tell the WHOLE truth and he isn’t letting me!”  The judge let me proceed but, in the end, it made no difference. 

The prosecution’s case was, I thought quite solid.   They had a mailman testify that, in all his years on that route, he had never delivered mail to that person at that address.  Utility company employees also had no record of him being there and the phone company had no listing for him, either.  The defense case hinged on one major point.  I had overlooked one important distinction in Tattersall’s notarized statement.  It said “I certify that XX rented from me at YY” rather than “LIVED at YY.”  The defendant claimed that he never actually lived there and had only RENTED space from Tattersall where he stored all the items he supposedly lost in the flood.  He supposedly lost a color TV, a diamond ring, and assorted other absurdities—all were stored in an unheated room on the second floor of a rundown (per testimony of the building inspector) structure.  The story seemed quite preposterous but the jury, I guess, had some reasonable doubt and they acquitted the defendant. 

I never talked to either the FBI or the US Attorney to learn how they’d solved the case but it became apparent that they hadn’t yet convinced Lew Thomas to come clean.  Had they already “turned” him, I’m sure he would have been compelled to testify that he had helped the defendant file a false claim.  I don’t recall if Tattersall was ever tried for his part in the scheme but Lew must have eventually ‘fessed up.  He was fined and placed on probation but never spent a day in jail. 

I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my Dad in Sweet Valley but I wasn’t out of work for long.  The phone call came in early January and I found myself headed for Connecticut.  See my next story, entitled “Disaster Bum 1974.”

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

 

Home