BY JOHN ECKBERG
The Cincinnati Enquirer
NEW RICHMOND - The doors closed at three Disaster Recovery Centers serving southern Ohio for the last time Wednesday night as officials phased out emergency relief efforts from the flood of 1997.
Tristate flood victims with questions about the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the status of their application should call the agency's toll- free help line: (800) 525-0321. For the speech- or hearing-impaired, call TTY (800) 660-8005.
Those with questions about the status of their Small Business Administration disaster loan applications should call (800) 359-2227.
The closings left some extremely thankful for help delivered. Yet some who came for one last stab at emergency assistance but were denied because they did not meet qualifications left dismayed.
A discouraged Jane Gilbert, 34, and Walter Gilbert, 35, of New Richmond left the office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at Market and Main streets and wondered about their future.
The flood forced them out of their rental house in New Richmond, and their landlord was still working on repairs. In the meantime, at least 10 apartment owners have rejected them as tenants because they have five children, said Mr. Gilbert.
Because they do not own property and have a questionable credit history, the couple said they were told they were not eligible for the low-interest loans provided by FEMA.
''We just can't find a place,'' he said. ''We're living with family, but that's a strain for everybody. I don't know what we're going to do.''
The bill for damage from last month's floods has topped $400 million in Ohio and Kentucky - with Kentucky's toll still expected to climb significantly. FEMA funds in the form of low-interest loans are reserved primarily for property owners, either residential or commercial.
Down the street from the center, which officially closed at 7 p.m., Dave Schafer, 47, of Monroe Township painted trim on a New Richmond rental house he has owned since 1974 and wondered why he could not receive an interest-free loan for damages.
''My tenants got their stove and refrigerator replaced, and they got rent. I lost drywall, carpeting and had to clean up and repair, and all I could get was a low-interest loan,'' he said. ''I'd have to mortgage my house for that. Why not an interest-free loan?''
Jim Williams, chief of staff of the Ohio Emergency Management Agency based in Columbus, said federal Small Business Administration policies prohibit no-interest loans. He said requests for relief began to taper off in mid-April.
''Centers usually close because of a lack of activity in the total number of people through the facility,'' he said. ''Only 10 people would come in each day. It's just a lack of demand for services.''
Pat Beck, mitigation officer for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, estimated that 1,056 people were served from the Adams County center, 1,961 in Clermont County and 1,380 in Scioto County.
On a ridge near West Union, in Adams County, Sheila Howell, 27, praised the emergency assistance offered to her family: a husband and three children. They were flooded out of their trailer below Adams Lake.
''They did a really good job,'' she said. ''They helped a lot of people who really needed it.''
FEMA centers in Aurora and Covington also have closed. The center in Falmouth remains open.