The frost may have melted, but the icy after-effects of the statewide mid-January freeze continue to chill farmworkers, business owners, and others around the state and county.
On Feb. 7, Congresswoman Lois Capps announced that she had joined with other members of the California delegation to introduce a disaster relief bill to provide emergency assistance for California agricultural producers, manufacturers, and workers hurt by the cold. The legislation would provide aid in the form of small business loans, unemployment assistance, food coupons, grants, and temporary mortgage and rental assistance to San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. Assistance would cover specialty crops, nursery crops, and trees, as well as vines, livestock and dairy production losses.
"The weather in California may be warming up, but the damage wrought by this freeze will be felt by our agriculture community and our local economy for months and even years," Capps said in a statement. "The federal government needs to help those on the Central Coast and across California who have suffered significant losses and are working to make a recovery from this disaster."
In related relief news, the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County announced on Feb. 6 that it had received emergency funds to supply food for "workers affected by the January freeze that devastated county crops." The coalition runs warehouses in Paso Robles and Oceano.
The coalition stated that food aid for agricultural workers throughout various California counties including San Luis Obispo County, facing around $26 million in damages comes through the state's Department of Social Services Emergency Food Assistance Program to be administered by county food banks according to need.
So far, SLO County's Food Bank Coalition has received $7,000. Weekly conference calls with all of the 17 affected counties will monitor need in the coming weeks and months.
The local coalition reported that it has also received a $7,500 contribution from PG&E to use as food relief for workers.
The Food Bank Coalition is supplying food to laid-off workers through its own USDA and Harvest Bag sites, as well as through its agencies that are expecting increase demand because of the freeze.
To find these sites, call the Food Bank at 238-4664 or visit slofoodbank.org.
Late last month, Steven C. Preston, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), announced that low-interest loans will be available to small businesses that suffered financial losses due to January's freeze.
In the wake of that announcement, SBA communications specialist Bill Koontz visited the area to mark the opening of several disaster outreach centers, starting with a Templeton station and moving south to Arroyo Grande, and then Santa Maria.
Koontz reported that the Templeton opening brought in a few applicants, though they drove up from Santa Barbara County.
As of Feb. 6, only one San Luis Obispo County business a nursery had registered and was sent an application.
"It is a little bit surprising," Koontz said of the sole SLO County business' interest so far. "Typically, we have a rapid response."
He noted that Kern County has seen more activity, but the organization has still seen only 52 applications from the whole state.
"We are hoping that people will be aware of it and come in later," Koontz said.
He theorized that businesses as opposed to individuals facing disaster might not recognize their loss immediately, and so could take a while to apply.
The SBA's action is in response to a Jan. 22 request from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the SBA to declare a disaster in the wake of statewide damage to crops, which suffered under low temperatures starting on Jan. 11. The declaration covers 40 California counties, including San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
SBA disaster customer service representatives are on hand at the outreach centers to issue loan applications, answer questions, explain the application process, and help individuals complete applications. The loans are available to "small, non-farm businesses" dependent on growers of crops that were damaged by the freeze, including packing houses, truckers, ag equipment suppliers and even potentially diners, gas stations, markets, and other "main street" businesses whose customers are dependent on agricultural income.
The San Luis Obispo County offices are in Arroyo Grande at the Department of Agriculture (810 W. Branch St., open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and Templeton at the Department of Agriculture (530 W. Main St., open Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.). In Santa Barbara County, the office is in the Santa Maria Town Center at 356 Town Center East on the corner of Broadway and Main Street (on the upper level near Macy's), open Fridays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Small-business owners who can't visit an outreach center can call 1-800-659-2955 or visit www.sba.gov/services/disasterassistance. All offices will be closed on Feb. 19 in honor of President's Day. The deadline to apply for these loans in Oct. 24.