Nearly six years after Hurricane Matthew drove Thad Artis out of his home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, he still hasn’t been given a permanent home.
Living alone in a motel for the past two years, increasingly frustrated by what he sees as empty promises of quick action from government officials, the 68-year-old spends every penny on his wife’s medical care after a stroke that left her unable to walk.
Before he moved his wife to a nursing home, they lived in their dilapidated home, about an hour’s drive southeast of Raleigh, for several years after the storm — both developed respiratory problems as mold spores grew on the ceiling. and bird droppings splattered. over their leaky roof. The kitchen floorboards were inhabited by cockroaches and “other creepy creatures.” The back of the house was so rotten, Artis said, that the toilet was about to fall through the floor.
“We were sick for a year,” he said. “The house and all the furniture were gone, rotted. We don’t have anything. I take everything I can with me to see her, to take care of her. I don’t give up because I have to help my wife.”
While waiting for an unfinished modular home in nearby Pikeville, Artis is among hundreds of low-income homeowners registered with the North Carolina Recovery and Resilience Authority who are living in temporary housing years after the 2016 storm and 2018 Hurricane Florence.
The new bipartisan General Assembly committee tasked with investigating these delays in disaster relief will hold its first meeting on Wednesday, the four-year anniversary of Florence’s landfall in North Carolina.
Co-Chair Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican whose area along the Noise River suffered some of the worst flood damage in the state, said he is seeking accountability on behalf of displaced voters like Artis.
“We have had to deal with numerous hurricanes, tropical storms and a pandemic, but this is a reality, not an excuse,” Bell said in an interview. “We have been discussing this issue for many years. We’ve made some progress, and then we take a step back, and that’s where politics comes into play. It should never have come to this point.”
While meteorologists say the Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet this year – a record absence of storms formed in August – residents of storm-prone southeastern states remain vigilant. North Carolina officials, who are still working on long-term repairs from Matthew and Florence, say recent labor shortages and supply chain issues have exacerbated existing problems.
Laura Hogshead, director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience, said in an interview that the complications caused by COVID-19, combined with rising prices and high demand for contractors, have slowed homeowners’ recovery efforts.
“I cannot overestimate the impact of the pandemic, especially 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 disappointed everyone involved.”
Due to construction delays, some beneficiaries, such as Artis, ended up in short-term housing for months or even longer. Hogshead said this is partly the result of two industrial housing providers canceling their contracts with the government in 2021 and 2022 due to soaring unit prices.
The North Carolina legislature created NCORR in 2018, in part to distribute $778 million in federal recovery funds allocated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Matthew in 2017 and Florence in 2020.
The agency has directed more than 60 percent of these funds to support homeowners, with about $231 million actually spent to date. The federal mandate calls for the money to be spent by mid-2026.
Funds are being used to refurbish or replace homes owned by low-income families in counties impacted by both hurricanes. They also support affordable and public housing projects that are less prone to flooding.
Spending these funds should not be easy, as there are many guarantees to ensure their proper use.
Homeowners must go through an eight-step process designed to make sure they qualify and have not yet received similar disaster relief money. It includes an environmental review of their damaged property, followed by grant award, contractor selection and construction.
Of nearly 4,200 homeowner restoration applicants, about 800 projects have been completed since Matthew received the money, according to NCORR. But Hogshead said the additional applicants – now more than 1,100 – are either waiting to find a contractor willing to take on the government-funded project with additional paperwork, or until the contractor gets to work.
Bell said he visited construction sites in his area unannounced, sometimes finding much less progress than contractors reported to the state.
“Honestly, we had situations where people didn’t understand what was being done,” Bell said.
As of Tuesday, 294 applicants who are currently awaiting repairs or replacements to their completed home were living in temporary housing — often in a rented property or hotel.
Shileta Smith, 68, has been living in her damaged home in Fremont — a five-minute drive north of Pikeville — since Hurricane Matthew flooded the house in 2016, destroying her insulation, destroying the central air conditioning unit and damaging the roof. This week, according to Smith, she is finally moving into a hotel so construction can begin.
“Finally, after two years of waiting, they should start building my house,” Smith said. “I almost got flooded from my house and had to repair the entire side of the house that was water damaged.”
Smith described the process of applying for assistance as “extremely frustrating” and said that her decision to award compensation was so minimal that she felt she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying repairs.
“At least my house was habitable,” Smith said, noting that she wasn’t sure how long she would have to live in the hotel. “I’ve been waiting for about two years for them to start renovating, but at least I have to stay in my house.”
Hogshead said that in the midst of another hurricane season, she always checks the tropics for developing storms that could cause further damage or delays.
“What really worries me is another storm,” she said. “Tipping over this apple cart in the middle of construction is an X factor that none of us can control.”
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