- Theresa Opeka / Carolina Journal
Lawmakers grill Cooper team on six-year lag in hurricane recovery
William and Geraldine Williams of Greene County have been living in a hotel for more two years. Mr. Williams is a retired veteran and his wife is on dialysis for 10 hours a day. They lost their home in Hurricane Florence four years ago and have been waiting for the state’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s to finally get a roof over their heads. They applied for the Rebuild NC program 2019 and say the government has pushed the completion date of their home many times.
The NCORR office has gotten $778 million in federal dollars to help people hurt by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, yet some remain homeless.
Stories like the Williams’ got attention from state lawmakers this week. They held a hearing Wednesday to get some answers from leaders of the program Gov. Roy Cooper set up in the wake of Matthew, which devastated parts of eastern North Carolina in 2016.
Wednesday was also the fourth anniversary of when Florence made landfall in the state in 2018.
The federal government is requiring that the state spend that $778 million by 2025 for Matthew and 2026 for Florence. Despite the years that have gone by, it may not happen. NCORR has completed just 789 out of 4,100 projects, or around 25% of homes, either by rehabilitation or new construction. They currently construct five to six houses monthly, compared to twenty-eight a month in 2020 and fourteen a month in 2021.
“This recovery is not going as you want it to go, it is not going as I want it to go, it is certainly not going as the families sitting behind me and out in eastern North Carolina want it to go, and that is on me,” said Laura Hogshead, director of NCORR.
She said several factors are holding things up, including the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and contractor and labor shortages. But they are working on ways to streamline the process, including reducing the number of documentation requirements for eligibility from 12-14 to 3-4, bringing case management in-house, and working on ways to pay contractors faster.
Hogshead added that the General Assembly could also help by raising the assignment threshold so they can assign work to a general contractor if the work is under $30,000.
Lawmakers were not accepting Hogshead’s explanation.
“My belief is that everything that is going on is completely unacceptable to this point, everything that your agency has done thus far has been unacceptable,” said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson. “I probably have more people that were displaced than any other county in the state after Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence. The excuse that the pandemic has caused the backlog is quite ridiculous to me because these folks have been dealing with this for quite a long time.”
Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer for NCORR, said five general contractor companies are actively working. Hogshead said tighter timeframes of completion also scare off some contractors.
Lawmakers, including Senator Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, don’t believe that the projects will all be complete by 2026 based on the rate at which NCORR is proceeding.
To Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Robeson, constituents affected by the hurricanes have become like family. “They aren’t applicants; they are people,” he said. “I have folks living in hotels since 2016.”
He asked why people should trust Hogshead, Duncan, and NCORR to get the job done.
“From our guarantor, HUD, we are meeting expectations, she said. “They hold us up as an example across the country. That doesn’t mean anything to the families living in hotels.”
Hogshead said they are seeing the effects of the pandemic easing, more general contractors are participating in their program, and they are increasing output.
Professional services firm HORNE, which has experience with the administration of federal funds, testified September 9 that they provided a project manager for the implementation of CDBG-DR funds for North Carolina.
“They shared that you refused to allow them to communicate with construction management companies or other state agencies,” Jones said. “Why was that?”
Hogshead replied that they didn’t want them to communicate without state staff present to make sure communication was correct based on HUD requirements.
“Would it be a fair statement to say you wanted to guard them to make sure you didn’t look bad?”
According to Hogshead, federal government red tape held up the process. However, Sen. Brent Jackson, R- Sampson, spoke with representatives from HORNE and said it was clear that NCORR’s program design choices could have been the problem.
“HORNE representatives cited numerous examples of NCORR directly ignoring recommendations from proven experts on how to streamline the program,” he said. “To quote HORNE’s testimony, many of HORNE’s attempts to provide feedback or warn NCORR leadership of the impacts that their policies and procedural changes would have on applications and staff were met with criticism.”
“As I sit here today and read the comments submitted from survivors talking about delays, lack of communication, and red tape, and then look out across this room and see the anguish on some of these faces, these could have been avoided if NCORR had just focused on helping our citizens instead of winning imaginary bureaucratic gold stars,” he said.
Lavonne Merritt, Wendell, Wake County, said the only thing NCORR has done over the past two years is removed asbestos from the home she shared with her late father, who died from cancer during the process.
“I now have lung cancer myself,” she said. “I have had the upper lobe of my lung removed due to mold. I just want to go home. I promised my daddy that I would get back home. I asked them, what are you waiting for me to die?”
Col. J.R. Sanderson, St. Bernard Project, a nationwide disaster recovery organization, ran the South Carolina Disaster Recovery Program from 2015 to 2019. Now a senior government advisor for SBP, Sanderson testified that the S.C. Disaster Recovery program used a streamlined system that hired one vendor to assign contractors to housing projects. As a result, the average turnaround time was 37 days for mobile homes, 56 days for stick built, and 88 days for complete reconstruction. Sanderson said they fined contractors $100 a day if they didn’t complete the work in time. He also said they turned over 110 homes a month, the equivalent of 3-5 per week.
When asked to evaluate NCORR’s progress, Sanderson said he doesn’t believe that they will meet the federal deadlines and should take steps to contract out their management system.
Another hearing is scheduled for December 14 for progress updates.