SILVER SPRING – State and federal government agencies had everything they needed to open a disaster recovery center in Silver Spring Thursday — except clients.
Representatives from a half-dozen groups, including the American Red Cross, the Maryland Insurance Administration and the Small Business Administration, were there equipped with forms and referrals. Television crews were there too, interviewing Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan.
Yet by mid-afternoon only three people had stopped by the center to ask for help. By 6:30 p.m., shortly before it was scheduled to close for the day, the Silver Spring center had only served five people.
But officials said they were not concerned.
“People don’t need to come here if they don’t want to,” said Butch Ducote, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In fact, people cannot come to any of the 11 disaster recovery centers that opened around the state this week until they have called a FEMA hotline to register.
During the 20-minute application process, a FEMA operator can send them forms for federal aid. The entire process can be done over the phone, but agencies decided to open centers for people who prefer talking face-to-face to government workers, Ducote said.
Three centers opened Tuesday — in Annapolis, Baltimore and Essex — followed by one Wednesday in Prince Frederick. Seven centers opened Thursday, in Silver Spring, Easton, Cambridge, Rock Hall, Chester, Crisfield and California, Md.
Residents can register and find out the address of their nearest center by calling 800-621-FEMA. If they opt to go the centers, they will find everything from Red Cross agents who can help direct them to food and cleaning supplies, to government workers who can help them start the application process for business loans or other government aid. At the Silver Spring center, county employees were on hand to help with things like permits for construction that might be needed to clean up after Isabel.
Statewide, 6,238 residents had called the FEMA hotline as of Wednesday night, with the most calls, 2,100, coming from Baltimore County. FEMA officials said 195 Montgomery County residents and 736 Prince George’s County residents had called the hotline by Wednesday night.
While only a handful of those suburban Washington residents showed up at the Silver Spring center Thursday, officials said they expected the pace to pick up.
“Generally speaking, we start out slow and it picks up in two or three days,” said FEMA center manager Norma Keithley.
About 20 workers were at the Silver Spring center, ready to answer questions. But mostly they caught up on office work, ate lunch and talked to people from other agencies.
“I’m not surprised by the turnout, but later tomorrow or early this evening, things will pick up,” said Peter McGinnity, a business development specialist for the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development.
McGinnity spent his free time working on the computer and organizing his work schedule with two co-workers also at the center. Jason Decker from the Maryland Insurance Administration also brought in work from the office and he was “just trying to keep busy.”
The launch of the Silver Spring center came two days after the state Department of Human Resources said it would open a center for Washington-area residents. But organizers struggled to find a site, until they finally landed on the Silver Spring location on the eighth floor of an office building at 8757 Georgia Ave.
The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, from 9 to 5 on Saturdays and from noon to 5 on Sundays, for as long as it is needed, officials said.