News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper urges patience as Matthew victims wait for help

Nearly two years after hurricane ravaged Eastern North Carolina, only a handful of homeowners have received government aid

Brenda Jacobs, a Lumberton resident, shows Gov. Roy Cooper the repairs done to her house nearly two years after Hurricane Matthew tore through the area. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
Brenda Jacobs, a Lumberton resident, shows Gov. Roy Cooper the repairs done to her house nearly two years after Hurricane Matthew tore through the area. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

Benjamin Phillips won’t forget the day Hurricane Matthew plowed into his house in Lumberton. He was watching a baseball game when news of the coming storm interrupted the broadcast.

“The weatherman said, ‘You’re about to get hit.’” Phillips said.

What Phillips saw next reminded him of the sci-fi classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“Remember how the clouds looked in that movie? That’s how they rolled in. It freaked me out,” Phillips said.

Phillips saw hundreds of birds fleeing the storm. Shortly afterward, as the rain and wind descended on his home, a nearby transformer blew up and shot a pillar of fire into the sky.

“We never thought we were going to get hit like that,” Phillips said. “You could be near the beach, and they got nothing like we got here.”

Matthew ravaged Eastern North Carolina almost two years ago in October, yet many communities struggle to recover. The storm took the lives of 31 North Carolinians and racked up at least $4.8 billion in damage. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed in the storm and subsequent flooding.

On Monday Aug. 13, Gov. Roy Cooper toured Lumberton in Robeson County and Fair Bluff in Columbus County to survey reconstruction efforts. Robeson and Columbus counties were some of the hardest hit in the state.

Recovery efforts have been slow, and reconstruction of damaged buildings and roadways are still in the works. The N.C. Emergency Management agency estimates more than $700 million in disaster relief money is on the ground, but millions in federal aid has yet to reach thousands affected by the storm.

Cooper’s administration has faced criticism over its handling of the disaster.

“It has to move faster. There’s no question about it, it has to move faster,” Cooper said during his last stop at a Rebuild NC application site in Fair Bluff.

About $230 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief was approved a few months after the hurricane by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But a lengthy application process and time-consuming environmental studies are keeping most of the money out of homeowners’ reach.

Robeson County is the first to start receiving CDBG-DR money. Other counties, including Columbus, are awaiting an environmental impact assessment to wrap up before they can receive any CDBG-DR money. Cumberland, Edgecombe, and Wayne are waiting for approval of environmental impact studies.

Phillips was one of the few in Robeson County to get aid through the HUD grant program. Phillips said his house was severely damaged from the storm, and he felt as though he was living in a third-world country.

Repairs on his house began about two weeks ago.

“When you go through any of these programs you have to give them everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to information,” Phillips said.

Phillips now has a new roof, but the interior of his house still shows signs of water damage. Wallpaper is peeling and carpets are ruined.

The CDBG-DR grants aren’t the only disaster relief money available. Other options include the Hazard Mitigation Grant program, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees. NCEM said $82 million in HMGP for hazard mitigation have been awarded in North Carolina. The state has encouraged people to visit disaster relief application sites or to call 2-1-1 for information on the kind of help they can receive.

Brenda Jacobs, who lives in Lumberton, had her house repaired with help from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency and the Lumbee tribe. FEMA turned down Jacobs’ request for help with repairs, but she was able to fix her home with money from the state.

Jacobs’ house was the first stop on Cooper’s tour. He also visited Phillips’ house, Griffin Park Apartments in Lumberton, the Fair Bluff Fire and Rescue Station construction site, and the disaster application center.

The Department of Commerce had been responsible for the block grants program, but the General Assembly handed control to NCEM. This is the first time NCEM is administering the program, and that’s part of the problem, Cooper said.

“Washington will only deal with commerce, so they have had to build up from the ground up in Emergency Management,” Cooper said. “I think they are working very hard, and I think that there will be help to a lot of people coming soon.”

Cooper couldn’t say when counties like Columbus would start receiving CDBG-DR grants.

While Cooper was on his tour of Eastern North Carolina, lawmakers in Raleigh held the first meeting of the re-established House Select Committee on Disaster Relief. N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry gave legislators an update on the recovery efforts. Legislators were less hostile to NCEM than in previous meetings, where they aggressively questioned state officials about the slow progress.

Sprayberry said the CDBG-DR program is ramping up. Seven application centers are open in the state, and more than 2,100 housing applications have been submitted.