Pandemic, Labor Shortage Keep Hurricane Victims in Limbo

September 15, 2022

Nearly six years after flood damage from Hurricane Matthew displaced Thad Artis from his home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he has still not been placed in permanent housing.

Living alone in a motel for the last two years, growing increasingly frustrated with what he considers empty promises of swift action from government officials, the 68-year-old spends every penny on his wife’s health care after a stroke left her unable to walk.

Before he moved his wife into an assisted living facility, the two lived in their decaying house, roughly an hour southeast of Raleigh by car, for several years after the storm — both developing respiratory illnesses as mold spores grew in the ceiling and bird droppings spattered atop their leaking roof. Roaches and “other creepy crawlies” inhabited the kitchen floorboards. The back of the house was so rotten, Artis said, that the washroom was about to fall through the floor.

“We stayed sick for a year,” he said. “The house and all the furniture, it’s gone, it’s rotten. We ain’t got nothing. I take everything I can get right down the road to see her, to take care of her. I don’t give up because I got to help my wife.”

Waiting on an unfinished modular home in nearby Pikeville, Artis is among hundreds of low-income homeowners enrolled with the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency who are living in temporary accommodations years after the 2016 storm and Hurricane Florence in 2018.

A new bipartisan General Assembly committee tasked with investigating these delays in disaster relief will hold its first meeting Wednesday — the four-year anniversary of when Florence made landfall in North Carolina.

Co-chair Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican whose district along the Neuse River incurred some of the worst flood damage statewide, said he’s seeking accountability on behalf of displaced constituents like Artis.

“We had to deal with multiple hurricanes, tropical storms and a pandemic, but those are the realities, not the excuse,” Bell said in an interview. “We’ve been back and forth on this issue for years now. We’ve made some headway, and then we take a step backwards and then politics gets thrown into it. It never should’ve gotten to this point.”

While meteorologists say the Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet this year — a record-tying zero storms formed in August — residents of storm-prone Southeastern states remain vigilant. Still working through long-term repairs from Matthew and Florence, North Carolina officials say recent labor shortages and supply chain issues have exacerbated the existing challenges.

Laura Hogshead, director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said in an interview that complications brought on by COVID-19, compounded by rising prices and high demand for contractors, have slowed efforts to make homeowners whole.

“I cannot overstate the impact of the pandemic, particularly on construction,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how good your general contractor is. If you can’t get windows, you can’t get windows. It’s been frustrating for all involved.”

Construction holdups have left some funding recipients like Artis in short-term lodging for months or even longer. Hogshead said that is partially the result of two manufactured housing vendors pulling out of contracts with the state in 2021 and 2022 as unit prices soared.

North Carolina’s legislature created NCORR in 2018, in part to distribute what became $778 million in federal recovery funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Matthew in 2017 and Florence in 2020.

The agency has committed more than 60% of these funds to support homeowners, with about $231 million actually spent so far. Under federal mandate, the money must be expended by mid-2026.

Funds are used to make major repairs or replace homes owned by low-income families in counties battered by both storms. They also support affordable and public housing projects that are less susceptible to flooding.

Expending these funds isn’t designed to be easy, with multiple safeguards to ensure they’re spent properly.

Homeowners must navigate an eight-step process designed to ensure they qualify and haven’t already received similar disaster money. It includes an environmental review of their damaged property, followed by a grant award, contractor selection and construction.

Of the nearly 4,200 Homeowner Recovery Applicants since Matthew money arrived, nearly 800 projects are completed, according to NCORR. But Hogshead said additional applicants _ now more than 1,100 _ are either waiting to find a contractor willing to take on a government-funded project with its additional paperwork, or for the contractor to begin work.

Bell said he has been performing unannounced drop-ins at construction sites in his district, occasionally finding far less progress than the contractors had reported to the state.

“Frankly, we’ve had some situations that folks weren’t straight up on what was being done,” Bell said.

As of Tuesday, 294 applicants currently waiting for repairs or a replacement manufactured home were living in temporary accommodations _ often a rental property or hotel.

Shiletha Smith, 68, has inhabited her damaged home in Fremont — a five-minute drive north of Pikeville — since Hurricane Matthew flooded the property in 2016, wiping out her insulation, destroying the central air conditioning unit and damaging the roof. This week, Smith said, she is finally moving into a hotel so construction can begin.

“Finally, after two years of waiting, they’re supposed to start construction on my home,” Smith said. “I almost got flooded out of my house and had to repair the whole side of my house that was from the water damage.”

Smith described the relief application process as “extremely frustrating” and said her award determination was so minimal, she felt like she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying repairs.

“At least my home was livable,” Smith said, noting she is not sure how long she will have to live in a hotel. “About two years waiting for them to start repairs, but at least I got to stay in my home.”

With another hurricane season in full swing, Hogshead said she’s always checking the tropics for developing storms that could cause further damage or delays.

“The thing I really worry about is another storm,” she said. “Upsetting this apple cart in the middle of construction is the X-factor that none of us can control.”

Photo: Homeowner Jennifer Baker at her Spring Lake home, which was damaged by Hurricane Florence in 2018. Nearly six years after extreme rainfall and flooding from storms, some homeowners are still left waiting on repairs. A General Assembly committee tasked with investigating the delays held its first meeting Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters COVID-19 Hurricane

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