Pandemic and labor shortage keep hurricane victims in limbo

By HANNAH SCHOENBAUM and GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Nearly six years after Hurricane Matthew caused damage, Thad Artis has been moved from his home in Goldsboro, N.C. He still hasn’t been placed in housing permanent.

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

Before moving his wife to an assisted living facility, the two lived in their decaying home, about an hour southeast of Raleigh by car, for several years after the storm – both developing respiratory illnesses as spores mold was growing in the ceiling and bird droppings were splashing. on top of their leaky roof. Cockroaches and “other scary critters” inhabited the kitchen floor. 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 is gone, it’s rotten. We have nothing. I do everything I can to see her, to take care of her. I don’t give up because I have to help my wife.

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

A new bipartisan General Assembly committee charged with investigating these disaster relief delays will hold its first meeting on Wednesday – the fourth anniversary of the Florence landings in North Carolina.

Co-chairman Rep. John Bell, a Republican from Wayne County whose district along the Neuse River suffered some of the worst flood damage in the entire state, said he was seeking accountability from the name of voters displaced as Artis.

“We’ve 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 have been back and forth on this issue for years now. We have made progress, then we go back and politics gets involved. It should never have come to this. »

While meteorologists say the Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet this year – a record zero storms formed in August – residents of storm-prone southeastern states remain vigilant. Still working on long-term repairs to Matthew and Florence, North Carolina officials say recent labor shortages and supply chain issues have exacerbated 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 from contractors, have slowed efforts to make homeowners whole .

“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 was frustrating for everyone involved.

Construction delays have left some funding recipients like Artis in short-term housing for months or more. Hogshead said that was partly the result of two sellers of manufactured homes withdrawing from state contracts in 2021 and 2022 as unit prices soared.

The North Carolina legislature created NCORR in 2018, in part to distribute what became $778 million in federal stimulus 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 those funds to supporting landlords, with approximately $231 million actually spent so far. Under the federal mandate, the money must be spent by mid-2026.

The funds are being used to make major repairs or replace homes owned by low-income families in counties hit by the two storms. They also support affordable and public housing projects that are less likely to flood.

Spending these funds is not designed to be easy, with multiple safeguards to ensure they are spent correctly.

Homeowners must follow an eight-step process designed to ensure they qualify and have not previously received similar disaster cash. It includes an environmental review of their damaged property, followed by grant award, contractor selection and construction.

Of the nearly 4,200 landlord reinstatement applicants since Matthew’s money arrived, nearly 800 projects have been 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 their additional documents, or for the contractor to start work.

Bell said he made unannounced visits to construction sites in his district, sometimes seeing much less progress than contractors reported to the state.

“Frankly, we’ve had situations where people weren’t aware of what was going on,” Bell said.

On Tuesday, 294 applicants currently awaiting repairs or a replacement manufactured home were living in temporary accommodation – often a rental property or hotel.

Shiletha Smith, 68, has lived in her damaged home in Fremont – a five-minute drive north of Pikeville – since Hurricane Matthew flooded the property in 2016, stripping its insulation, knocking out the central air conditioning unit and damaging the roof. This week, Smith said, she’s finally moving into a hotel so construction can begin.

“Finally, after two years of waiting, they’re supposed to start building my house,” Smith said. “I almost got flooded out of my house and had to fix the whole side of my house that was flood damaged.”

Smith described the relief application process as ‘extremely frustrating’ and said her award decision was so small she felt like she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying the repairs.

“At least my house was livable,” Smith said, noting that she doesn’t know how long she’ll have to live in a hotel. “About two years of waiting for them to start repairs, but at least I have to stay at home.”

With another hurricane season in full swing, Hogshead said it is still monitoring the tropics for developing storms that could cause further damage or delays.

“What really worries me is another storm,” she said. “Upsetting that apple cart in the middle of construction is the X factor that none of us can control. »

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Julio V. Miller