Thousands of NC hurricane victims still waiting for state to help bring them home
It’s been nearly five years since Hurricane Florence devastated parts of eastern North Carolina — and two years since Hurricane Matthew hit the same area. But thousands of families whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the storms are still waiting for a state program to bring them home.
Along busy U.S. 17 south of Jacksonville, Sonya Black and her family can't live in their house yet. It sustained water damage when Hurricane Florence dumped rain and wind on the state for days in 2018.
Since the storm, the family of five has been cooped up in a small, donated RV behind their 3,000-square-foot home. The house has been gutted and awaits contractors from the state’s ReBuild NC program to install drywall and flooring.
The Blacks haven’t been given a date for when the work will start.
"It's taken a toll on us," Sonya Black said. "We don't have hot water still five years later. So we boil water for washing, cooking, and so on."
Black says it’s been especially hard on her kids.
"We have an 18-year-old child that's been having serious battles and issues, anxiety and everything," she said. "His bedroom is the RV on the couch. So, we've been having to deal with that. (My husband) had his kidney removed; all of this while we're waiting. And it's been super stressful. And now, you know, I fight that depression. I’m a positive person."
The Blacks are one of 3,783 families impacted by Hurricane Florence and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew that are waiting for ReBuild to finish repairing or rebuilding their homes. The program is funded by federal dollars and housed in Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration. It’s finished only 1,163 projects as of last week. A total of 235 are currently under construction, while other projects are earlier in the eight-stage process for the program.
ReBuild officials say a lack of contractors and supply shortages have slowed down the process. And they blame red tape from the federal government that prevents them from making the process more efficient.
Legislation that recently passed the Senate aims to attract more contractors to the program — and hold them accountable if they don’t complete the work on time.
Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson and one of the bill’s sponsors, says the program initially failed to recruit contractors. "Originally NCORR (the N.C. Office of Resiliency and Recovery) only had five contractors statewide," he said. "Why they thought that was ever enough to get the job done was baffling to me."
Laura Hogshead leads NCORR and the ReBuild NC program. She says some contractors were hesitant to agree to the federal rules when there was plenty of private-sector housing work available. Private homebuilders typically pay in advance, while with federal work, companies have to wait for reimbursement.
But more have joined in recent months. "We've got about 65 that are on our list right now, about half of them are still working through the paperwork ... it is a federal program, so you have to have all the federal requirements met," she said. "But we're working with them to get all those requirements met. We always want more though, because every new G.C. that we have is more families that we can serve."
Hogshead says she has concerns with parts of the Senate bill. One provision requires new homes to closely resemble the size of the damaged homes. It stems from concerns some families are ending up with bigger homes, while others are forced to downsize.
That’s because the program offers a limited number of floor plans for new homes, an attempt to make the planning and permitting process efficient. "Having that kind of legislation in place will hinder us from being quicker next time," Hogshead said.
Another point of contention in the Senate bill is a provision that says each contractor can't have more than 75 active projects at the same time. Lawmakers think some contractors are taking on more homes than they can quickly build, but Hogshead says she's working with several large companies that can easily handle bigger workloads.
The legislation comes after a joint House-Senate committee held multiple hearings on the program, and some committee members even called for Hogshead to resign or be fired. Black attended and says she's not impressed by the oversight.
"We keep having these meetings, but nothing's coming of it — a couple of policy changes here and there," she said. "But that's, to me, just stalling. I don't see anything happening."
About 30 minutes west from where the Black family lives, down a narrow dirt road in rural Pender County, Bob Sault is also waiting for his new home. He’s lived in a hotel for a year and a half. Before that hotel, he was living outside on the covered deck of his flooded home.
He says he’s been told that his contractors are waiting for Pender County to issue building permits. That’s been a common hold-up for ReBuild projects, and the Senate bill would require counties to prioritize disaster recovery projects over other permits and inspections.
Sault has no idea when construction will start.
"I think 2026 — that’s going to be that's the projected ending date. I don't want to be waiting until 2026, you know? I don't know though, the way that it’s going," he said.
Hogshead says she’s confident that ReBuild will get everyone’s home finished before federal funding expires in 2026.
But that will require the program to speed up. It’s finished about 58 homes per month so far this year — and at that pace, it would take more than five years to get through the remaining 3,800 homes in the pipeline.
"We are improving every month, we're increasing our numbers every month," Hogshead said. "And I do feel like we are going to finish with the families that we have in our pipeline before the end of the federal funding."
ReBuild officials also point out that more than 10,000 hurricane-damaged homes have been repaired or rebuilt since 2016 in the state, most of them through other state and federal aid programs.
House Speaker Tim Moore says his chamber will soon consider the Senate bill intended to speed up the program. But Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger argue that Gov. Cooper should take a more active role in fixing the delays.
"I think ultimately it’s a matter of competency in the executive branch, and I don’t know that we can legislatively ensure that competency exists," Berger said. "Basically, that’s the governor’s responsibility to make sure his folks are actually doing their jobs, and I think he’s failed the people of the state in this regard."
Cooper has said he thinks the program has been too slow but says it's now improving. "While historic labor and supply chain shortages slowed construction following the pandemic — particularly for programs using federal dollars with more complex rules — the governor charged recovery officials to cut red tape and get more hammers swinging," Cooper spokesman Jordan Monaghan said in an email, adding that NCORR "will be relentlessly working until the job is done."
Meanwhile, hurricane season starts again next month — prompting questions about whether the state is ready to quickly help future storm victims.
Hogshead says the ReBuild program will mean North Carolina won’t have to create a recovery program from scratch like it did after Matthew and Florence. She explained that the state hadn't received this type of federal disaster funding since 2004, so other states with more recent disasters had more infrastructure to quickly get the money moving.
But she wants to see federal agencies improve the process for getting money to the states quickly. "I think there's a lot of data sharing and a lot of coordination that could happen at the federal level that would impact how quickly these funds are spent at the state level," she said, noting that hurricane victims can receive help from FEMA, the Small Business Administration and HUD, and each has its own rules and processes.
Black said she hopes that before another storm, the ReBuild program will be "scratched and start(ed) all over again, with people who actually know what they're doing."
Sault says he’s hopeful he’ll soon leave a Wilmington hotel and return to his slice of paradise along Holly Shelter Creek. He’s been dreaming about what he’ll do when the house is complete.
"Playing guitars and cooking — that is what I really look forward to the most," he said. "I have been wanting to start a garden and stuff, you know. But it ain't look like we'll get it this year."