Pandemic and labor shortages keep hurricane victims in limbo

RALEIGH, NC (AP) — Nearly six years after Thad Artis was forced from his home in Goldsboro, North Carolina by flood damage from Hurricane Matthew, he has still not been moved to permanent housing.

The 68-year-old, who has lived alone in a motel for the past two years and has grown increasingly frustrated by what he sees as empty promises of quick action by government officials, spent every penny on his wife’s health care after she stopped walking after a stroke could.

Before he moved his wife to an assisted living facility, the pair lived in their derelict home, about an hour’s drive south-east of Raleigh, for several years after the storm – both developed respiratory illnesses as mold spores grew on the ceiling and bird droppings spattered their leaky roof . Cockroaches and “other creepy crawlies” populated the kitchen floorboards. The back of the house was so rotten, Artis said, that the washroom almost fell through the floor.

“We stayed ill for a year,” he said. “The house and all the furniture, it’s gone, it’s rotting away. We have nothing. I’ll take whatever I can get to see her and take care of her. I don’t give up because I have to help my wife.”

Awaiting 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 living in makeshift shelters years after the 2016 storm and 2018 Hurricane Florence.

A 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 the Florence landings in North Carolina.

Deputy Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican whose district along the Neuse River has suffered some of the worst flood damage in the nation, said he is seeking accountability on behalf of displaced voters like 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’ve been back and forth on this issue for years now. We’ve made some progress and then we take a step back and that’s when politics comes into play. It should never have come to this.”

While forecasters say the Atlantic hurricane season has been calm this year — record-breaking zero storms formed in August — residents in the storm-prone southeastern states remain vigilant. North Carolina officials are still working on long-term repairs for Matthew and Florence and 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 the complications caused by COVID-19, compounded by rising prices and high demand for contractors, have slowed efforts to bring homeowners back to health.

“I cannot stress enough 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 was frustrating for everyone involved.”

Construction jams have left some grantees like Artis in short-term accommodation for months or even longer. Hogshead said that was partly because two manufacturers of prefab homes withdrew from contracts with the state in 2021 and 2022 as unit prices skyrocketed.

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

The agency has allocated more than 60% of that funding to support homeowners, with approximately $231 million actually spent to date. On behalf of the federal government, the funds must be spent by mid-2026.

The funds will be used to make major repairs or replace homes owned by low-income families in counties hit by both storms. They also support affordable and public housing projects that are less prone to flooding.

Spending these funds is not easy as several safeguards are put in place to ensure they are spent properly.

Homeowners must go through an eight-step process designed to ensure they qualify and have not already received similar disaster funds. It includes an environmental assessment of the damaged property, followed by a grant award, contractor selection and construction.

Of the nearly 4,200 homeowner recovery applicants since Matthew received the money, 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 its extra paperwork, or for the contractor to start work.

Bell said he made unannounced visits to job sites in his county and on occasion found far less progress than contractors had reported to the state.

“Honestly, we’ve had a few situations where people didn’t know exactly what was being done,” Bell said.

As of Tuesday, 294 applicants currently awaiting repairs or a replacement home were living in makeshift housing — often in rental properties or hotels.

Shiletha Smith, 68, has lived in her damaged home in Fremont — a five-minute drive north of Pikeville — since 2016’s Hurricane Matthew swamped the property, blowing out her insulation, destroying central air conditioning and damaging the roof. This week, Smith said, they’re 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 entire side of my house that was affected by the water damage.”

Describing the relief application process as “extremely frustrating,” Smith said her award decision was so slight that she felt she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying the repair.

“At least my home was livable,” Smith said, noting that she’s not sure how long she’ll have to live in a hotel. “I waited about two years for them to start the repairs, but at least I was able to stay in my house.”

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.

“What’s really worrying me is another storm,” she said. “Tumbling that apple cart over in the middle of construction is the X-factor none of us can control.”

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