Man’s advocate says NCORR ignored requests for emergency repairs
[Editor’s note: This is among several Policy Watch profiles of homeowners who remain displaced from Hurricane Matthew, which devastated parts of North Carolina in October 2016. These personal stories are part of Policy Watch’s ongoing investigation into the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which has mishandled the RebuildNC program. Five and half years after the storm hit, hundreds of households, equivalent to thousands of people, still do not have permanent homes; they are living in motels, travel trailers, with relatives, or even in their damaged houses. For each profile, Policy Watch has given residents the option of using their full names, partial names or no name at all, depending on their comfort level.]T he grumbling of outboard motors announced that help had arrived.
In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew engulfed the city of Goldsboro in 15 inches of rain, lifting the Neuse River to a record 29.7 feet — 11 feet above flood stage.
About a mile from the Neuse, the man had lived in a little white house with a majestic magnolia tree in the front yard for 30 years. “It was a family house,” said the man, now 65, who asked not to be named. “My daddy bought it, and I inherited it.”
The flood waters rose, and the man was stranded. “I got out by motorboat,” he said.
Torrential rains had strafed his roof, but FEMA determined that the damage was not severe and gave the man money to repair it. HUD — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — though, has a different standard. By the time HUD factored in aspects of the house that weren’t up to code, including the presence of asbestos in the walls and floors, the agency declared it uninhabitable. The family home needed to be torn down and rebuilt.
So began a five-year morass, in which the poorest and most vulnerable people, like the Goldsboro man, are at the mercy of an inefficient and at times, indifferent state bureaucracy. The NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency oversees the Hurricane Matthew disaster recovery homeowner program. NCORR, as it’s known, received $236 million in federal funds to help people secure new or renovated housing, but poor case management has left thousands of people displaced more than five years after the storm.
“Every person’s story has things in common,” said Charles Wright, a designee and advocate selected by the Goldsboro man to help him negotiate the program. “The bureaucracy, people being strung along, people whose houses are condemned but have nowhere to go.”
After the flood, the man was homeless, so he stayed with friends, an elderly couple. Then the husband died, as did the wife.
Homeless again, the man scraped together enough money to buy a 14-year-old Kia sedan. He parked it in his yard and slept in it for three months. “On the coldest nights I paid to stay in a motel,” the man said.
Finally, in April 2018 the man could afford to move into a low-end motel. He’s been there ever since, paying $650 a month, about 70% of his income from his job as a custodian.
NCORR pays for temporary housing for eligible displaced people when their projects reach a certain stage in the process. But until then, in most cases people are on their own.
“Most of his money goes just to survive,” Wright said, adding the state should reimburse the man for four years’ of motel bills, roughly $32,000. “He should be made whole.”
After two years of motel living, on Aug. 28, 2020, the man, aided by Wright, sent an NCORR case manager an email, requesting money for emergency repairs. Wright included photos.
“My home has deteriorated to the point it is no longer safe to enter my home,” the letter, which the man had signed, reads. In addition to the extensive roof damage, the ceilings had collapsed in five rooms.
Neither Wright nor the man received a response. Two weeks later, on Sept. 10, Wright sent another email, asking about the status of the man’s application.
On Sept. 18, the case manager responded: “Thank you for the information. It has been uploaded to his file.”
Neither Wright nor the man ever heard from NCORR about emergency repairs again. Had the man received the funds for temporary fixes, he likely could have lived in his home until it was time for a contractor to demolish it and rebuild.
Finally, in August 2021, the man’s house was one of 30 in a package that NCORR opened for bids. Rescue Construction Solutions, which, as Policy Watch previously reported, is far behind schedule on its projects, won the contract. Of the 30 homes, all are scheduled to begin construction this year, state records show, although five are already delayed. One homeowner died last December; an heir is now eligible for the program.
The asbestos from the man’s home was removed in February. A mobile storage unit arrived in April, which should have triggered the next step in the process: relocation at the state’s expense. Yet NCORR hasn’t moved the man into a better-quality motel.
State records show construction on the man’s house isn’t scheduled to begin until July 8, although given other homeowners’ histories, that date will likely be postponed. Even if construction begins on time, and proceeds without delays, the man’s new home isn’t scheduled to be finished until Jan. 26, 2023.
“You do what you got to do. I got to survive,” the man said. “All I got is me.”
Over past month, more problems, no improvements at NCORR
Since Policy Watch published its first story on May 9, dozens of homeowners have come forward with stories about problems with NCORR, contractors and workmanship on their homes. Several people told with Policy Watch they had contacted the governor’s office as recently as last year about issues with the program. They said they didn’t receive a response.
Policy Watch has requested an interview with the governor’s office.
A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office told Policy Watch it had received two complaints, but forwarded them to NCORR.
At least a dozen people, contractors and homeowners alike, have told Policy Watch that NCORR Chief Program Delivery Officer Ivan Duncan was verbally abusive to them. Policy Watch previously requested an interview with Duncan, but NCORR provided Chief Operating Officer and Director Laura Hogshead instead.
Hogshead previously told Policy Watch it had become difficult to attract and retain contractors for the disaster relief program. That and supply chain issues, she said, have slowed the pace of construction.
One North Carolina contractor with an extensive track record of disaster recovery, said it had rebuilt 120 homes damaged by Hurricane Florence — outside of NCORR’s RebuildNC program. The contractor recently notified NCORR and Duncan that the company could withdraw from the disaster relief recovery program, citing “a lack of focus on the homeowners” and “a lack of effective communication.”
The contractor also shared with Policy Watch an email it had sent on April 29 to the governor’s office. It reads in part:
At this point, due to arrogant responses from a specific person in NCORR, I’m ready to go to local government officials and the press to voice my concerns of incompetence with leadership in ReBuild NC. … Feel free to call me if you are interested in hearing the issues. I’ll assume if I don’t hear back that the Governor is not interested in improving ReBuildNC to get things done for citizens in North Carolina.”
The “specific person” referred to in the email was Duncan.
The contractor told Policy Watch the governor’s office did not respond.
Meanwhile, NCORR has not renewed its construction management contract with the firm AECOM. (This change had been planned before Policy Watch’s series launched.) Instead, NCORR will move those duties in-house, which will be cheaper, according to Hogshead.
As part of that shift, NCORR has hired a former Rescue Constructions Solutions employee, Kevin Lara, to be an estimator. In a written response to Policy Watch questions, NCORR said Lara will be “reviewing scopes of work and change orders from all general contractors … and that the correct grade of materials is being used. Because NCORR uses third-party pricing and standard grade material, there is no subjectivity to the approval of change orders. He will review and recommend, but he is not the final decision on any change order.”
The job was publicly posted on the state’s website, NCORR said.
This is the second instance of a Rescue employee being linked to NCORR and Duncan.
Mike Carrington worked for DRG Construction in New York State. That firm won millions of dollars’ in contracts from that state’s storm recovery office while Duncan was employed there as a program delivery officer. Carrington now works for Rescue.
Policy Watch recently published notes taken contemporaneously during weekly contractor meetings showing that Duncan gave Rescue, and to a lesser extent, RHD, leeway not afforded to other contractors. NCORR has denied showing favoritism to any contractor.