- Theresa Opeka / Carolina Journal
Lawmakers call for resignation of Cooper official over hurricane-recovery failures
North Carolina lawmakers heard once again on Wednesday from officials on hurricane-recovery efforts for those who lost their homes due to Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. And many legislators were not pleased that little progress had been made and that testimony from executive branch officials in the almost four-hour Hurricane Response and Recovery Subcommittee meeting was nearly identical to that was given in September.
The consensus narrative from officials in the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Reliency (NCORR) was that they take full responsibility and are working hard on resolving issues as quickly as they can. But legislators say not much progress is being made for those who have had no place to call home since as far back as 2016.
Lesley Wiseman Albritton, director of Disaster Relief Project attorneys at Legal Aid NC, testified that 650 residents have asked for help from Legal Aid with issues with ReBuild NC, a program that falls under the state Office of Recovery and Resiliency, created by Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper. They are working with 178 clients and have seven appeal decisions from NCORR. Eleven are still pending.
Albritton said they had received only two award letters since the September hearing, with 105 clients still awaiting awards, including five from as far back as 2019.
“We have no idea why the delays have been so lengthy, and that’s despite being in regular communication with the clients’ case managers,” she said. “The longer we wait for decisions, the fewer resources are out there in the alternative for our clients so that is the frustration that we share with our clients.”
Another issue is that case management services have changed hands. As of Dec. 13, NCORR has taken over from professional services firm HORNE due to the end of its contract with the state. Albritton said 75 clients had been assigned new case managers, but 46 of those clients and Legal Aid were never informed of the change. Bad communication with NCORR, she said, is nothing new.
“This has been a consistent problem the entire time we’ve been representing ReBuild clients,” Albritton said. “We’ve experienced a great deal of case management manager turnover, and our clients are rarely informed of those new assignments. It also leads to a slowdown in the process and a possible loss of documentation.”
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, asked Albritton if she saw any prioritizing for their vulnerable clients, like the elderly or disabled. Albritton said no.
Laura Hogshead, director of NCORR, said, as she did in September, that she takes responsibility. But she also admits that it isn’t enough.
“In September, you asked me to take accountability, which I do,” she told lawmakers. “And you asked me to show progress. I am happy to be here today to show you the progress, understanding that it’s not enough. It’s not enough for anybody who’s sitting behind me, it’s not enough for anyone in eastern North Carolina, it’s not enough for anyone sitting in front of me.”
Hogshead presented a series of slides indicating some progress that was made, including going from having five homes built in a month to 17 currently, or a 242% increase in production since September. A total of 889 out of 4,313 homes have been completed, up 100 from the 789 that were completed as of September.
She also touted that 277 projects have been awarded to general contractors in the last six months, processing times for asbestos/lead, damage, and environmental inspections have improved, and more appeals and awards have been processed. In addition, being exempted from the state’s policy to hold payment on an invoice for 30 days from the invoice date (the Net 30 Policy) has helped significantly in how fast NCORR pays general contractors, and processing their payments should become faster in January.
Hogshead said despite their progress, they are not satisfied and will continue to focus on improving program efficiency and getting families home.
Lawmakers like Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, aren’t satisfied either. He asked her how many of the 115 families would be in their homes for Christmas like they had discussed in September. Hogshead replied that 18 had returned home, 11 more are scheduled to come home this month, and another six may be in a home before the end of the month.
“I’m extremely disappointed in that number,” Perry said. “That’s over 80% or so who aren’t home.”
Other lawmakers stressed that the process needs to be stepped up before federal funding runs out. The federal government requires the state to spend $778 million by 2025 for Matthew and 2026 for Florence.
Hogshead said that NCORR had started a new escalation process in the last few months to ensure the most vulnerable get their cases moved to the top of the list. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, wasn’t so sure. He said commission staff paid a visit to 60 houses under construction and only encountered one contractor working on one of the homesites.
“Director Hogshead, this is unacceptable,” he said. “By any stretch of the imagination, this is unacceptable, and I’m infuriated. The lack of urgency that has been performed since all this began and trying to get these people back into their homes at the slow rate that has been going on is totally unacceptable. There has got to be some improvement made in this program immediately or I’m gonna use what power I have to redirect the funds to someone that can get the job done.”
Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson, echoed Jackson. “If you were in the private sector, I don’t know any employer that would keep you employed with all the failures that you’ve allowed to happen,” he told Hogshead. “For you not to know what’s been going on in this state or for you to continue to allow the failures to happen and not take steps to change the process until we came here to this committee is a failure. And you failed as a director; you should resign from your position.”
N.C. Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe, who oversees NCORR, also said the progress was not enough and a deeper dive will need to be taken to figure out how to speed up the process to help people still without a home.
The meeting ended with a March 15 date set for another meeting to hear about progress updates.