WRAL Investigates: Hundreds of millions in hurricane recovery money still unspent

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— This week, North Carolina House leaders formed a committee to investigate problems in getting assistance to hurricane victims dating back as far as six years.

WRAL Investigates has been following the money and the delays through the nightmare of a Goldsboro woman who’s still waiting.

After Hurricane Matthew swallowed her Goldsboro home in 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paid Staris Morgan some rental assistance and just enough money to tear out the flood damage. Before she could get help to renovate, Hurricane Florence hit in 2018.

While her South John Street home got moldy and deteriorated, Morgan finally won initial approval in 2019 for a grant to elevate and rebuild through the state’s Rebuild Program.

WRAL Investigates visited again in June hoping to find good news. Instead, it was the same old story. Morgan says she signed papers for a contractor in December and work was supposed to start in March, then April.

She’s part of a long list of hurricane victims still waiting. Morgan told us about her frustration, “They’ve got all this money appropriated, and nobody’s being helped.”

WRAL Investigates went through quarterly grant spending and progress reports from the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency. The state received federal grants to cover home rehabilitation and reconstruction.

For Matthew, $108 million has been paid out of a pot of $136 million, nearly six years after the storm hit.

As for Florence, four years after landfall just $39 million has been spent out of $352 million in rehab and rebuild grants. Records show more money is committed to various projects like Morgan’s, but it has not been spent.

Morgan’s not sure where to point the finger but says the problems start on the ground. “It seems to me that you work with one person and then all of a sudden you’ve got another case manager,” she said.

Laura Hogshead, director of office that runs the Rebuild NC program, said, “We are streamlining everything we can streamline to get to them as fast as possible, but this is a federal program and we can not skip steps.” Hogshead oversees extra funding approved by Congress, beyond FEMA, that’s slated to take years to spend with lots of red tape to cut through.

WRAL Investigates asked Hogshead to address those North Carolinians who have waited years to once again have a place to call home. “Help never comes fast enough,” she said. “I know that, and I know this feels very different, particularly if you’ve been through two storms.”

Hogshead admits an already complicated process became even more challenging because of the pandemic. “Even when we can find the crew and the general contractor and even when all of the labor is in line, the delays on the supply chain issues are having an impact. If it takes 20 weeks to get a door, it takes 20 weeks to get a door.”

A few weeks after WRAL Investigates spoke with Hogshead, contractors showed up to level and haul away Morgan’s rotting home to make way for a new elevated one.

“I felt sadness, but I have joy,” she said about a new chapter in her life.

Still, after years of fighting and waiting, she’ll believe it when she sees it.

“This has really been a journey. I sometimes refer to it as a nightmare on my street.” It is a nightmare she hopes will end soon. “I’m ready to go home,” she said.

It’s been nearly a month since crews tore down Morgan’s home. To date, there’s still no new construction work on the property. And the nightmare continues.