As the midpoint of the Atlantic hurricane season approaches, victims of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence are still waiting to return home years later.
Representatives from the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) say that help is on the way, and a member of the General Assembly says that NCORR will be held accountable.
But the question remains: Will it be before the deadline for federal funding to help rebuild people’s homes runs out?
The federal government requires the state to spend a combined $778 million by 2025 for Matthew and 2026 for Florence.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, started NCORR after Hurricane Florence to “streamline disaster recovery programs statewide and help communities rebuild smarter and stronger,” according to North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s (NCDPS) website. ReBuild NC, a program that falls under NCORR, was established for hurricane recovery.
In March, there were 3,399 families still without homes. More were added to the list after the April 21 application period closed. As of Aug. 2, 1,317 families are now in a home, according to an email from NCORR representatives to Carolina Journal. However, those still waiting in the pre-construction or construction phase are 3,507. Currently, there are 358 projects in active construction.
Home completion rates are averaging 51 homes per month, down from a high of 58 in February, NCORR director Laura Hogshead testified at a March Joint Legislative Hurricane Response and Recovery Subcommittee hearing. They held two previous meetings in December and September.
NCORR officials told CJ that as of July 28, there were 28 general contractors in active construction and 16 in various stages of “pre-construction” (scheduling and/or performing pre-construction walkthroughs, pulling permits, etc.). There are also 93 general contractors on the pre-qualified list, and NCORR is working with them to get them fully participating.
They also said that as of July 11, one local Habitat for Humanity is also on their pre-qualified list, and they are exploring partnerships with other Habitat affiliates.
While they are doing much better at completing homes (five to six a month on average, as reported in September 2022), there is still a way to go.
Comparatively, Col. JR Sanderson, senior government advisor for SBP, formerly known as the St. Bernard Project, a nationwide disaster recovery program, testified at the first Hurricane Response and Recovery Subcommittee hearing in September that the average turnaround time for the South Carolina Disaster Recovery program was 110 homes a month, the equivalent of three to five per week, when he ran the project in SC from 2015 to 2019 for recovery from Hurricanes Joaquin, Matthew, and Florence.
Hogshead said in March that they began working with SBP and gave NCORR recommendations like insourcing efforts, which she said has allowed for faster processing of applications.
She said in September, several factors were holding up the completion of homes, including the COVID-19 pandemic, supply-chain issues, and contractor, and labor shortages.
Other changes, like Richard Trumper’s appointment on Feb. 1 as senior advisor for disaster recovery for the NCDPS, a department that NCORR falls under, seem to have helped. Trumper previously served as the director of disaster recovery at the NC Office of State Budget and Management.
Hogshead said in March that taking over case management from HORNE in December and management of Rebuild NC Centers and contact centers from them in January has increased accessibility for applicants through increased center days and hours.
Still, the clock is ticking.
“We’ve seen improvement in homebuilding since the legislature began holding oversight hearings, but NCORR continues to fail North Carolinians, Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson said in an email to CJ. “To help the remaining families before funding expires, NCORR needs to nearly double the homes it’s completing per month. The current output is woefully short of what’s needed to complete the mission.”
Robeson County has been one of the hardest hit areas, with millions of dollars in damage by Matthew and Florence and other storms that followed.
Britt told CJ the Hurricane Response and Recovery Subcommittee plans on holding another hearing this fall. In the meantime, he said that hurricane recovery remains at the forefront of his mind.
“Too many families are still dealing with damage from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, along with Tropical Storm Fred,” Britt said. “As the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 438, which addresses issues laid out during the previous hearings, I’m doing everything I can to get that bill passed and signed into law. Beyond that, we’ve got to keep up the pressure on NCORR to do its job and get families back into their homes.”
Britt said that Cooper could do a lot more since his political appointees are failing to run the program properly.
“Even after the devastating stories we’ve heard from North Carolina families that are stuck in hotels and having to live without basic appliances, the governor has been totally reluctant to hold anyone within NCORR accountable,” Britt said. “The General Assembly has had to step up in that regard, and we’re reviewing any further steps that can be taken to improve disaster recovery.”
There have been some that have finally seen some relief after losing their homes.
It was revealed at the March hearing that William and Geraldine Williams, Greene County, who testified at the September hearing and were in attendance at the December hearing, finally had their modular home delivered.
The Williamses lost their home to Hurricane Florence in 2018 and have been living in a hotel for years.
LaVonne Merritt, from Wendell in Wake County, who also testified in September and attended the December hearing, is in the process of finally having her home rebuilt, according to a report by WTVD. The house she shared with her late father was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
But time is of the essence for the over 3,500 remaining, and Britt said Cooper should focus on real emergencies like hurricane recovery instead of made-up ones, like the one Cooper declared over education funding.
“I don’t want to make predictions yet on what things will look like when expiration dates begin to creep up, but there’s no doubt that program mismanagement and the lack of accountability from the executive branch has put our most vulnerable populations at risk of not getting the assistance they need,” he said. “There’s still time to gain some ground, but that would require the governor to focus his efforts on the displaced families — and it seems like he is more interested in issuing fake ‘states of emergency’ than taking responsibility for his administration’s mishandling of hurricane recovery.”