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NC lawmakers say hurricane recovery program falls short

Rising flood waters brought on by Hurricane Florence threaten a building off highway 70 in Goldsboro, N.C., Sunday, Sep. 16, 2018.
Ben McKeown
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For WUNC
FILE— Rising flood waters brought on by Hurricane Florence threaten a building off highway 70 in Goldsboro, N.C., Sunday, Sep. 16, 2018.

Willie Williams and his wife Geraldine applied for Rebuild NC in 2019. The program aimed to help low income families impacted by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence rebuild their homes. Matthew hit in 2016, while Florence came in 2018.

The couple — both of whom are disabled veterans — moved out in March 2020 because repairs were supposed to start on their home.

"After so many weeks, they came back... and told us that it will be an additional two months," Williams said. "After that two months, they [came] back and tell us it will be an additional two months. And this went on and on up until this date."

They're still living in a hotel in Kinston, waiting for their home to be fixed.

The Williams' and other families in similar situations testified at a hearing in Raleigh on Wednesday held by the state's Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery, part of the the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations. Wednesday was the four-year anniversary of when Florence made landfall in North Carolina.

Constituents shared similar complaints: The application process was lengthy and complicated. There's no clear communication or information available. It's extremely difficult to reach anyone with pertinent information.

"We have no control of our surroundings, our environment, or anything," said Geraldine Williams. "I just think it's appalling. It's just simply appalling."

In her opening statement, Laura Hogshead, director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), acknowledged these frustrations.

"This recovery is not going as you want it to go, it's not going how I want it to go, and it's certainly not going how the families sitting behind me and out in eastern North Carolina want it to go. And that is on me," Hogshead told lawmakers.

Rebuild NC is run by NCORR. The agency was created in October 2018 to distribute approximately $778 million in federal recovery funds awarded to the state after Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

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North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency
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80% of the funding from HUD must be spent in these designated counties. HUD defines these areas as severely impacted and distressed by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

So far, NCORR has completed nearly 800 projects out of 4,200 — which is less than 20%. The agency has also spent $12.7 million on housing families in hotels.

As part of her presentation, Hogshead said her agency is making several changes to Rebuild NC to hopefully ease some challenges.

For example, applications for the program will now require less documentation. Previously, 12-14 documents were required; now only three to four are necessary.

Hogshead explained her agency was asking for so many documents to ensure the qualification process was done correctly in order to avoid penalties from HUD.

"We were overly conservative. We have since stepped that back significantly," Hogshead said.

Similarly, the program also plans to simplify the application process for contractors. NCORR is having difficulty recruiting and retaining contractors to build or repair homes. This is in part because of the pandemic, which has caused rising prices, high demand for contractors and delays in receiving equipment because of supply chain shortages.

Hogshead admitted that contractors are also hesitant to work with NCORR because of the large amount of paperwork.

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North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency
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Homeowners in the Rebuild NC program must navigate an eight-step process designed to ensure they qualify for these funds and haven’t already received similar disaster money. This process is federally mandated by HUD.

The program will also begin using in-house case managers instead of using a third party company. Up until now, homeowners had two case managers: one for the first five steps of the program process, and then another for the last three. Hogshead said having one case manager throughout the entire process will allow for more "consistent... and comprehensive information at every step."

In a separate filing to the subcommittee, one of the third party companies that was providing case managers to NCORR said the agency as unreceptive to recommendations.

"HORNE team members made numerous attempts to recommend best practices, however those recommendations were... rarely implemented by NCORR," the document stated. "Many of HORNE’s attempts to provide feedback... were met with criticism."

HORNE has provided case management services to several other cities and states. The company said it has been successful in places that were more open to feedback. HORNE said NCORR's rigid policies hindered their ability to serve homeowners.

"HORNE was not allowed to communicate with construction management... [or] other state agencies. The Case Management team was limited in its ability to provide substantive updates and support to applicants."

Lawmakers heavily criticized NCORR for their lack of progress.

"Everything that [NCORR] has done thus far has been unacceptable," said state senator Danny Britt (R-Robeson). "We need to do better to help these folks."

Republican State Senator Brent Jackson of Sampson County, co-chair of the subcommittee, questioned whether NCORR will be able to complete the projects it started before time runs out. Under a government mandate, federal funds allocated for the recovery must be spent by June 2026.

“Now we're in a hole so deep that, quite frankly, I don't think you or your staff can dig yourself out of it," Jackson said.

Jackson said the subcommittee will reconvene in 90 days for an update on the program.

The Associated Press contributed to this reporting.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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