State admits frustration distributing Matthew money

By Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press
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RALEIGH — North Carolina’s emergency management chief acknowledged Monday a laborious process for homeowners seeking federal funds for repairs due to Hurricane Matthew and is looking for improvements looking to the next storm.

While more than $630 million in federal and state funds already are being spent toward the recovery, only a trickle of the $236.5 million in block grants allocated by the federal government last year to help reimburse or pay for extensive home repairs has been distributed. Another $168 million for the long-term grant program also is expected.

“We know that we’ve got some work to do. We know that we want to streamline the process,” state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry told a House committee monitoring relief for Matthew. “We are going to make it a better process.”

But that wasn’t enough for committee members from eastern counties frustrated with delays in helping residents and businesses still struggling since the October 2016 storm. Matthew’s historic flooding damaged nearly 30,000 homes and caused $4.8 billion in damage overall. More than $1.7 billion in federal and state recovery funds ultimately are anticipated.

Life has largely returned to normal for most residents, although families are still temporarily living in about two dozen mobile home units provided by the government.

Legislators told stories about constituents struggling almost 19 months later to make repairs, or forced to pay on both mortgage and rent while their houses are unlivable.

“I’m mad, I’m upset and we can do better,” Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican and committee chairman. “We’ve got to fix this. It’s not about who’s wrong or right, it’s not about pointing fingers. It’s not about a blame game … These are real people, with real lives. I’m just tired of excuses.”

Bell and committee members from both parties affirmed their support for Sprayberry, a holdover from Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration still on the job under Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

“I think you are the man for the job,” said GOP Rep. Brenden Jones of Columbus County, but “I hope that this administration will move at a faster pace than we’ve had so far.” Jones’ district includes part of Robeson County.

Sprayberry said the state has never received such a large block grant for long-term disaster recovery and took on the program when it appeared a restructured state Commerce Department lacked the tools to manage it.

The Division of Emergency Management had to develop an action plan on how they money would be used. Application centers were opened in the four counties hardest hit by Matthew — Cumberland, Edgecombe, Robeson and Wayne counties.

Applications are still being received, but the eight-step process for low- or middle-income homeowners is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sprayberry said. The process is shorter, but still time-consuming, when a resident is seeking financial reimbursement for completed work. The first reimbursement check was awarded last week to a Robeson County homeowner.

In addition, hundreds of homeowners in places like Lumberton, Fair Bluff, Windsor, and elsewhere soon will benefit from a program to avoid future floods by elevating their houses, rebuilding them or buying the property so residents can move to higher ground.

“People are getting relief each and every day sir, I can tell you that,” Sprayberry told Jones. “We’re working hard to make good things happen.”

Businesses damaged from the storm were able to receive low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. A Johnston County business executive with more than 40 employees told the committee his repayments begin in May on top of bank loans and his family’s mortgage, threatening his future.

“We didn’t lose our home during Matthew. Now we’re in jeopardy of losing our home 18 months later,” Brian Barefoot with Atlantic Resources Inc. said in asking legislators to help business owners. “Please help the people that could not control which way this storm blew in this state.”

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By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press