Plagued by construction delays, ReBuild NC has spent $10.6 million to house Hurricane Matthew survivors in motels, rent storage units

A house in Wayne County whose homeowner has been displaced by Hurricane Matthew since the storm hit in 2016. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This story has been corrected to reflect the first TRA payment was in August 2019, not January 2020.

ReBuild NC has spent $10.64 million on motels, moving and storage unit expenses in three years for displaced Hurricane Matthew survivors, as construction and administrative delays have kept people from returning to their homes.

The figures were included in Temporary Relocation Assistance (TRA) data provided by ReBuild NC, also known as the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency. The data also includes expenses for apartment leases and stipends for friends and family of Hurricane Matthew survivors who privately house them.

As part of an ongoing investigative series, Policy Watch reported earlier this month that ReBuild NC had been unable to provide detailed expenditure documents as requested under public records law. The agency then agreed to send totals, but without supporting documentation.

In providing the new information, a ReBuild NC spokesperson noted that TRA funds come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, although this type of assistance is not a HUD requirement. “It is an additional benefit that NCORR decided to provide to make the recovery process easier, especially for those applicants who have no other housing options during the construction process. Without this benefit, many of our applicants would not be able to participate in the program,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Under the TRA program, once construction begins on a home, ReBuild NC pays to move and house low-income hurricane survivors, as well as covering the cost of renting mobile storage units.

ReBuild NC incurred its first TRA expenses in August 2019. Since then, ReBuild NC has paid $6.5 million in motel bills, $1.7 million to PODS Enterprises, and $70,000 to 1-800-PACK-RAT for mobile storage units, as well as other expenses.

The relocation is supposed to be temporary — usually up to six months — but because of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of the program, some hurricane survivors have lived in motels for more than two years. This includes the Williams family, who have been stuck in one room without a kitchen for 862 days.

Another homeowner, who asked not to be named for fear that work on their home would be delayed, told Policy Watch they have been in a motel since early 2020. However, the motel does not have a kitchen and the person receives food stamps, which don’t cover restaurant meals. As a result, it has been difficult for them to afford food, they said.

Construction delays have long plagued the program. Although some lag time can be attributed to the pandemic and supply chain issues, that does not explain all of the inefficiencies. In other instances, homeowners have been moved from livable, if damaged houses with the expectation construction would begin immediately. Instead, months, even years pass.

Several contractors have told Policy Watch that they have completed the work but have not been paid by ReBuild NC. Multiple contractors told Policy Watch that it can take months to get approval for change orders; these occur when contractors uncover additional work that needs done and that was beyond the estimate cost of repairs, such as lead paint or asbestos abatement.

According to state data that had been sent by ReBuild NC to the governor’s office and obtained by Policy Watch, 740 homes are listed as complete as of July 11. In early May that figure was 717.

The average cost per house — including new construction and rehabs — is $136,882, according to state cost estimate and invoicing data obtained by Policy Watch. Depending on the type of home, the cost of a motel stay could exceed that of new construction or repairs.

The recent TRA figures don’t capture the full extent of displaced homeowners. Hurricane survivors whose income is too high must pay for their own relocation expenses. However, several homeowners, such as the Dillahunt family, have told Policy Watch their income was miscalculated and they were in effect, homeless. The Zerby family didn’t qualify for TRA and lived in a travel trailer in a church parking lot for more than a year.

ReBuild NC operates its homeowner disaster recovery program using an eight-step process. In the first five steps, the process is primarily administrative: determining an applicant’s eligibility and benefit amounts, as well as inspecting the home.

In Step 6, ReBuild NC puts a project out for bid, and an eligible household can then move using TRA assistance. (If repairs are minor, a homeowner can remain in the house.) There are 819 households in Step 6, according to an eight-step status report dated July 11.

Construction begins in Step 7, the current status for 173 households. Another 740 are in Step 8.

Hurricane Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina in October 2016. HUD subsequently allotted North Carolina a $236 million grant for a disaster relief homeowner recovery program related to the storm. However, the recovery program, initially run by the state Department of Public Safety and the Department of Commerce was slow to launch, and cited by HUD as a “slow spender,” jeopardizing the grant.

The state legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency in late 2018; Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as ReBuild NC’s director; she has been in charge since early 2019. Ivan Duncan is the chief program delivery officer, responsible for dealing with contractors.

Last week, state House and Senate leadership announced the formation of a 12-member oversight committee to investigate the delays and problems with the program. the first meeting has not been scheduled.

 

From Ivan Duncan’s LinkedIn page: Duncan is the chief program delivery officer at ReBuild NC. He was commenting on a United Nations post to LinkedIn about disaster relief. Multiple contractors and homeowners have complained that he is responsible for many of ReBuild’s problems. The agency has declined to make Duncan available to Policy Watch for an interview.

Legislative subcommittee to investigate ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of Hurricane Matthew recovery program

 

Damaged in Hurricane Matthew in 2016, these houses are under construction or are being rehabbed as part of ReBuild NC’s disaster relief program. The homeowners have been displaced for as long as two and a half years, living in motels, with relatives or in dilapidated houses, while construction is delayed. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

A 12-member legislative subcommittee will investigate the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s handling of a Hurricane Matthew disaster relief program that has left thousands of people displaced, living in motels, with relatives, or in dilapidated houses for years. NCORR is familiarly known as ReBuild NC.

This week House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger established the Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery. Its co-chairs are Rep. John Bell, a Republican representing Wayne, Johnston and Greene counties; and fellow Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, whose district includes Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.

ReBuild NC received $236 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hurricane Matthew homeowner recovery. Initially, the Division of Emergency Management ran the program under then-director Mike Sprayberry. However, HUD criticized the division for the slow rollout of funding.

In response, in late 2018 the legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which is under the Department of Public Safety. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as chief operating officer to get the program on track. She hired Ivan Duncan as chief program delivery officer, who held a similar position in New York State after Hurricane Sandy.

Laura Hogshead, director and chief operating officer of the ReBuild NC program. (Photo: NCORR)

However, under Hogshead’s and Duncan’s leadership, ReBuild NC has continued to founder. Since May, Policy Watch has published a series of investigative stories and homeowner interviews uncovering the extent of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement: arbitrary and preferential treatment to some construction companies, an atmosphere of secrecy, high turnover of case managers, lack of communication with displaced homeowners, as well as exorbitant expenditures on motel rooms and mobile storage units for those households.

As a result of Policy Watch’s reporting, Gov. Roy Cooper in late June ordered ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety “to undergo a thorough review of all areas where the process can be streamlined and customer service improved. They have identified a robust plan of action to get people back into their homes faster. The governor expects that NCORR will focus on delivering results faster while staying in close touch with those being assisted.”

Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer of ReBuild NC (Photo: LinkedIn)

Nonetheless, in the past month, Policy Watch has continued to hear from displaced homeowners who are desperate for help. All of them have told Policy Watch they get no answers from ReBuild NC about the progress on their homes. Several contractors have also left the program, further delaying construction.

The homeowners also said their case managers instruct them to communicate only by phone, not via email. Not only does this practice leave no paper trail for accountability purposes, it also prevents case managers from having a comprehensive history of a homeowner’s issues. In many instances, homeowners said they had to rehash their entire history with the program — even providing redundant documentation — to new case managers.

Hurricane Matthew disaster relief is not the only program under ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety to be scrutinized.  In April, State Auditor Beth Wood blasted the agency’s handling of Hurricane Florence recovery money.

In response to the announcement of the subcommittee, NCORR issued a statement:

“Since beginning its work in early 2019, NCORR’s top priority has been to get hurricane survivors back into their homes as quickly as possible, while supporting the overall recovery of storm-impacted communities. NCORR has been working closely with General Assembly members and staff to increase understanding of its progress and operations. We look forward to sharing additional information about program changes underway that are improving and expediting the recovery process for the people we serve.”

In addition to the co-chairs, many of the subcommittee’s members represent constituents in eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by the historic hurricane in October 2016. The first meeting has not yet been announced.

Senate                                                                                     House

Danny Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson)                                    Brenden Jones (R-Columbus, Robeson)
Jim Perry (R-Lenoir, Wayne)                                                  Mark Pless (R-Haywood, Madison, Yancey)
Steve Jarvis (R-Davidson, Montgomery)                              Sarah Stevens (R-Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes)
Kirk deViere (D-Cumberland)                                                 Charles Graham (D-Robeson)
Joyce Waddell (D-Mecklenburg)                                            Shelly Willingham (D-Edgecombe, Martin)

NC Governor tests positive for COVID, symptoms mild

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced on Monday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and was experiencing very mild symptoms.

The 65-year-old Cooper is vaccinated against the virus and has received two booster shots. He has also begun a course of Paxlovid, an oral antiviral pill.

“I’m feeling fine,” said Governor Cooper in a brief video released by his press office.

Gov. Cooper will be working from home and following the CDC guidance on isolation.

His positive test result comes 27 months into the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, Cooper’s former DHHS secretary who shared daily briefings with the governor during the early days of the pandemic, was quick to wish him a speedy recovery:

As NC marks National Gun Violence Awareness Day, gun reform faces an uncertain future in Congress.

 

On Friday, Governor Roy Cooper joined others in recognizing June 3rd as National Gun Violence Awareness Day, an effort to raise awareness and remember the lives lost to gun violence.

North Carolina has the 17th highest rate of gun deaths in the nation. In 2020 there were 1,699 firearm related deaths in our state, according to North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.

“We cannot forget these tragedies when they fade from the news,” said Governor Cooper in a release. “It’s past time for common sense reforms that must take place at the congressional and legislative levels – stronger background checks, red flag laws, banning assault weapons and community violence interventions so that we can prevent these horrific events.”

But despite the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Tulsa, getting lawmakers to agree on an approach to reducing gun violence may be difficult.

During Thursday’s U.S. House Judiciary Committee meeting, North Carolina Republican Congressman Dan Bishop (NC-09) balked at raising the age of purchasing semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21.  He also rejected efforts to ban high capacity magazines.

“What are you willing to do to stop the epidemic of gun violence in this country?” Rep. Mondaire Jones, a New York Democrat, asked Bishop.

“I wouldn’t let teachers prop doors open. I would make sure police are not discouraged from going in and saving children who are being assaulted, while the assault is going on,” Bishop said, referencing the Uvalde massacre that left 19 children and two teachers dead at the hands of an 18-year-old.

“I can translate that for you, he’s willing to do nothing,” responded Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat.

Watch that heated exchange below:

The gun control package advanced along a party-line vote, 25-19, and is expected to be on the House floor next week. In an evenly divided Senate, it’s widely expected Republicans would block most gun control measures. That has some Democrats again calling for an end to the filibuster.

Back in Raleigh, Gov. Cooper’s budget proposal for FY 2022-23 provides $38.7 million to enhance community and school safety.

The spending plan also includes $2.5 million in recurring funds for violence education and prevention programs for at risk and juvenile justice-involved youth and $1 million for the purchase of gun locks.

Safe storage is one area where local officials are hoping to find common ground. Officials in Durham County pulled together this week to distribute more than 200 gun locks in their community.

The North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force is also encouraging legislators to fund a statewide firearm safe storage education and awareness initiative. The task force estimates that modest proposal would cost a minimum of $155,000 in nonrecurring funds for a two-year initiative.

This weekend (June 3 – 5) the North Carolina Executive Mansion will be lit orange in honor of Gun Violence Awareness Day. You can read the governor’s proclamation here.

Gov. Cooper’s budget on environmental issues: what it contains and why it matters

Gov. Cooper’s recommended budget, apportioned by topic area (Source: Governor’s Office)

Gov. Roy Cooper unveiled his $29.3 billion budget yesterday, 3% of which is devoted to natural and economic resources. 

Here are some highlights of the environmental sections and why they’re important:

Department of Environmental Quality

  • $2.49 million to address emerging compounds with additional staff and testing

Why it matters: Are you tired of PFAS yet? Well, PFAS aren’t tired of you. These toxic compounds have seeped into every day life: drinking water, carpet, clothing, fast food containers, furniture, cookware. They’re in blood, in pee, in breast milk.

This money would pay for more specialized staff — chemists, hydrogeologists, engineers — to meet the increasing need for groundwater testing, as well as permitting. What it will not pay for: the legislature’s political will to allow DEQ to establish a legally enforceable drinking water standard.

  •  $160,000 for a “project liaison” to collaborate with the Department of Commerce and Economic Development Partnership related to permitting and site development; plus another $500,000 for support positions

Why it matters: Former DEQ Secretary Michael Regan often said that it’s possible to have both economic development and environmental protection. That’s a sunny talking point, but In Real Life government and economic development leaders chase tax dollars from polluting industries while giving short shrift to the people who have to live next to the contamination. Those people are usually non-white and/or low-income. And once the first polluter enters a community, then it’s open season. (The NC Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discussed cumulative impacts of multiple polluters at a meeting earlier this week.)

At the risk of using corporate lingo, state agencies are stuck in “silos”: For example, Commerce recruits a company to locate in North Carolina, but until recently no one has considered the environmental — or environmental justice — implications of that department’s efforts.

If the legislature actually includes this line item in their budget (don’t hold your breath), watchdogs should track how it plays out. If the legislature nixes the governor’s recommendation, DEQ and Commerce could still communicate about their respective concerns. The phone call is free.

  • $15 million for low-income households to reduce energy costs and afford clean energy sources

Why it matters: The national average residential electricity rate was up 8% in January from a year earlier, according to The New York Times, which reported it is the biggest annual increase in more than a decade. Low-income households are particularly hard-hit, as are renters. While this budget recommendation would help homeowners, how it would trickle down to renters remains to be seen. According to the NC Housing Coalition, there are 27 counties where renters average more than 8% of their household budget on energy. Renters tend to earn lower wages than homeowners, and since they have to answer to a landlord, they can’t upgrade their homes to make them energy efficient or outfit them with heat pumps or solar panels.

Department of Agriculture

  • $2 million for a forest development program

Why it matters: The importance of forests and trees can’t be overstated. They provide critical wildlife habitat, store carbon, provide shade, and absorb and hold flood waters. The forest development program in the governor’s budget would restore 18,200 acres of forestland — about the size of Durham County — and plant up to 6 million trees. That sounds admirable until you realize North Carolina’s wood pellet plants consume more than that each year.

Map: Lisa Sorg, based on DEQ database of swine farms and NC Division of Emergency Management flood plain data

  • $18 million for the swine farm buyout program

Why it matters: The Coastal Plain, with its sandy soils, high water table and proliferation of swamps, are not well-suited for CAFOS — Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — and their open-air waste lagoons and spray fields.

Dozens of these farms lie within the 100-year flood plain, making their lagoons vulnerable to overtopping or breaching during a hurricane or prolonged storms. This money would help fund the voluntary buyout program, up to 19 swine farms. The land is put in a conservation easement, but farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

As Policy Watch reported in 2019, the buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. In 2018, the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

  • $10 million for peatlands and pocosin conservation and inventory

Why it matters: First, peatlands are cool, at least when they’re not on fire. In this part of the world, they are the result of decomposed Sphagnum moss, shrubs and sedges. In Scotland, smoldering peat is used to dry malt that is used to make whisky. (Laphroig will knock your socks off.)

However, burning peat releases carbon dioxide, a major driver of greenhouse gas. North Carolina has coastal peatlands; those of you around in 2008 might remember when, during a severe drought, lightning struck a peat bog, igniting it. The bog burned for weeks, and the smell — and pollution– traveled west all the way to the Triangle.

Restoring peatlands — re-wetting them — can reduce carbon emissions and wildfire risk, as well as promote flood resilience and water quality, all very important not just to coastal communities but the planet.

These funds will also help the Natural Heritage Program inventory Coastal Plain wetlands that have been previously excluded from other counts. Wetlands can control flooding, filter pollution and provide key habitats. Finding, acquiring and protecting wetlands, particularly in the flood-prone Coast Plain, can build resiliency against future hurricanes and severe storms — events that are very likely because of climate change.

(Creative Commons)

Other appropriations

  • $10 million to the Department of Transportation so the state can receive matching federal grants for the first portion of the S Line: commuter rail that would link Wake, Franklin, Vance and Warren counties. Another $10 million would go to a local government program that would to provide matching funds for bike and pedestrian projects.

Why it matters: Transportation is responsible for 60% of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, electric cars won’t solely dig the planet out of the climate crisis. As long as we continue to put more cars on the road, including electric, that sparks road widening. And road widening requires asphalt, whose manufacture and trucking emits greenhouse gases. More highway lanes often require massive clear-cutting of trees, which are carbon stores. (Exhibits A and B: I-40 in Wake County, I-95 in Cumberland County.)

As for the S Line, it’s years away, but a north-south rail line could alleviate the daily logjam on U.S. 1 and Capital Boulevard. 

Another way to get cars off the road is to make cities and suburbs safe and pleasant for walkers and bicyclists. Protected bike lanes, greenways, sidewalks that connect neighborhoods: People would more likely walk or bike to a coffeeshop if they didn’t have to cheat death by crossing four lanes of traffic.