Six years after Hurricane Matthew tore through North Carolina, hundreds of residents are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt

Nearly six years after the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, Thad Artis was moved from his home in North Carolina, he still has not been placed in permanent housing.

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 pair lived in their dilapidated home in Goldsboro, about an hour southeast of Raleigh by car, for several years after the storm.

The two developed respiratory illnesses when mold spores grew in the ceiling and bird droppings splashed on their leaking roof.

Cockroaches and “other scary critters” inhabited the kitchen floor.

The back of the house was so rotten, Mr. Artis said, that the toilet was about to fall through the floor.

“We stayed sick for a year,” he says.

Hurricane Matthew left residents homeless and without help. (Reuters: Jonathan Drake)

“The house and all the furniture is gone, it’s rotten. We have nothing.

“I’m doing everything I can to see her, to take care of her. I’m not giving up because I have to help my wife.”

Waiting for an unfinished modular home in nearby Pikeville, Mr. 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 Hurricane Florence in 2018.

A man in an American flag life jacket wades through knee-deep water with three dogs behind a cage door.
As locals tried to recover from Matthew, Florence struck in 2018. (Reuters: Jonathan Drake )

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

Co-Chair Rep. John Bell, a Republican from Wayne County whose district along the Neuse River suffered some of the worst flood damage statewide, said he was looking to make accounts on behalf of displaced voters like Mr. Artis.

“We’ve had to deal with multiple hurricanes, tropical storms and a pandemic, but those are the realities, not the excuse,” Bell said.

“We’ve been back and forth on this issue for years now.

“We made progress, then we took a step back, then politics got 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 (NCORR), says complications brought on by COVID-19, compounded by rising prices and high demand from contractors, are slowing efforts to make homeowners whole.

“I can’t overestimate the impact of the pandemic, especially on construction,” she says.

A house with boarded up windows.  Go Away Matthew is written on the lower windows in black spray paint.
Residents were forced to evacuate their homes, not knowing what awaited them when they returned. (Reuters: Randall Hill)

“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 everyone involved.”

Construction delays have left some funding recipients like Mr. Artis in short-term housing for months or more.

Ms Hogshead says this is 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.

A flooded street with half-submerged red brick buildings.  A stop sign stands in the middle.
Homes weren’t the only things damaged by the floodwaters – several businesses were affected in the area. (Reuters: Jonathan Drake )

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 Homeowner Recovery applicants since Matthew’s money arrived, nearly 800 projects have been completed, according to the NCORR.

But Ms Hogshead says other 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 says he has made unannounced visits to construction sites in his district, sometimes seeing much less progress than contractors report to the state.

A red brick building with Carey's Upholstery written on the windows.  The building is filled with flood waters, reflecting.
Some residents have been waiting years for construction to begin. (Reuters: Carlo Allegri )

“Frankly, we’ve had situations where people weren’t aware of what was being done,” Bell says.

The day before the start of the committee, 294 candidates awaiting repairs or a replacement manufactured home are living in temporary accommodation – often a rental property or a 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, Ms Smith says, she is finally moving into a hotel so construction can begin.

“Finally, after two years of waiting, they are supposed to start building my house,” she says.

“I almost got flooded out of my house and had to fix the whole side of my house that was flood damaged.”

Ms Smith describes the relief application process as ‘extremely frustrating’, adding that her award decision had been so minimal that she felt she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying the repairs.

An African American man carrying a laundry basket walks through ankle deep water in a front yard.
Residents must fight to prove that they need money to rebuild their homes. (Reuters: Randall Hill)

“At least my house was livable,” Ms Smith says, noting that she doesn’t know how long she will 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 says she’s still checking 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.

PA

Julio V. Miller