Roverta and Franklin survived Hurricane Matthew, only to be ignored by the state’s RebuildNC program

By: - May 25, 2022 6:00 am

Roverta and Franklin, photographed inside their mobile home, which has been declared uninhabitable. The couple, their daughter Ashley, and a granddaughter have lived in an extended stay motel, at taxpayers’ expense, since March 2021. They frequently check in on their property to ensure it’s secure. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

[Editor’s note: This is the first of several 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.]

For 28 years, Roverta and Franklin have owned a spacious mobile home and a lot in Dudley, in Wayne County. Here, they raised a family. They planted a flower garden. They barbecued in the backyard. Roverta ran a day care, as the couple’s own children grew into adults.

“Thanksgiving is our major holiday,” Roverta said. “Kids, grandkids, friends, anybody who wanted to come. It was home to everybody.”

The couple who opened their doors to so many people now has no permanent home of their own.

Since enrolling in the ReBuild NC program three years ago, they’ve been through two contractors — Duckey and Excel — five construction liaisons and six case managers. Yet their mobile home has yet to be demolished and replaced.

Roverta and Franklin’s story is similar to those of dozens of homeowners in the ReBuild program interviewed by Policy Watch: Poor or nonexistent communication by the state; construction delays for months, even years; a constant churn of case managers; conflicting information; and the state’s lack of empathy for people who have survived a traumatic, life-or-death natural disaster.

For the past 15 months, Roverta, Franklin, their daughter Ashley, and a granddaughter have lived in an extended stay motel in Goldsboro, at taxpayers’ expense, because construction overseen by the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which operates RebuildNC, is so far behind. 

State records show the family’s new house is in limbo, with no start date scheduled, and no estimate of when they will return home.

When Hurricane Matthew hit on Oct. 8, 2016, fierce winds stripped shingles off the roof of their home, allowing rain to pour through. “Every room was damaged,” Franklin said.

Several environmental managers told the couple it was safe to stay in their home, even as a brown stain blossomed across the ceiling. Even though Roverta has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that can damage the lungs. Even as Franklin, a non-smoker, began to develop breathing problems from the mold. He’s since been diagnosed with COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In June 2019, Roverta and Franklin were accepted into the ReBuildNC program. In September of that year, they signed a contract. Their four-bedroom mobile home would be demolished and replaced with one the same size. 

“[ReBuild] told us we should be in our new home by January 2020,” Roverta said.

Roverta and Franklin’s garden behind their uninhabitable mobile home. Photo: Lisa Sorg)

It’s May 2022 and there is no new house. Roverta and Franklin recently visited their dilapidated mobile home, which has been declared uninhabitable. Nonetheless they check in on their property from time to time, picking up the mail, ensuring no one has broken in. The lawn is tidy. A vibrant red rosebush that Franklin planted in memory of his mother is in full bloom.

Inside lie the remnants of a life that can’t fit in PODS, and some of it that is likely too full of mold and mildew to salvage: Toys and decorations, curtains, a couch. A washer and dryer.

“Somebody’s stolen the mailbox twice and tried to get inside the PODS,” Roverta said. “That’s my concern, our stuff is sitting here but we’re not here.”

They should be here, but the original promised move-in date, January 2020, came and went. Meanwhile, the family — Roverta, Franklin, Ashley, and a granddaughter — remained in the home. They began repairing the bathroom and kitchen floors, which were unsafe.

However, the program doesn’t allow homeowners to make temporary fixes without state approval.

“We got a letter saying stop repairing or leave the program,” Ashley said.

The Year 2020 passed. Another environmental manager visited their home and declared it uninhabitable. “We kept calling the state because we didn’t know what to do,” Roverta said. She eventually reached someone in the governor’s office, she said.

Shortly afterward, in January 2021, Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer with NCORR, called her. “He offered us a FEMA trailer,” Roverta said, “and I told him I didn’t sign up for that. He was rude.”

Finally, in March 2021, ReBuildNC moved the family of four into the motel. The contract that Roverta and Franklin signed specified a four-bedroom modular home. But the contractors had been awarded a bid from NCORR that allowed for only three bedrooms.

“I had to go to the tax office and get proof that my original home was four bedrooms,” Roverta said. “Four bedrooms was in the contract.”

In August 2021, when the family should have been in a new house, Ashley’s daughter, who is in second grade, contracted COVID at school. This was not the first time a family member had contracted the virus, but the living conditions were different. 

The previous year, when the family was still in their mobile home, Ashley had come down with COVID and stayed in her bedroom, sparing anyone else from catching the virus. Now that the family was crammed into a motel, there was nowhere to adequately quarantine. Ashley caught COVID a second time. Then Roverta because ill. She was hospitalized for two weeks.

“Just before getting COVID, she was breathing freely,” Ashley said. “Now she’s on five liters of oxygen at night. She got COVID because we weren’t able to quarantine.”

The stress of motel living continued. Five months ago, in the middle of the winter, Roverta said motel management knocked on the door of their suite.

“They said we had to leave because the state hadn’t paid the bill,” Roverta said. “There were 20 families living there. We didn’t have anywhere to go.”

The state quickly negotiated with motel management, which allowed the residents to stay.

Asked about the incident, NCORR issued a statement to Policy Watch saying “on Jan. 12, 2022, our office became aware that the contractor responsible for managing hotel accounts had been slow to issue payment in some instances. NCORR resolved the issue within nine days, ensuring all hotel accounts were brought up to date. This example underscores NCORR’s recent decision to bring all recovery program activities in-house where state employees will have full oversight rather than relying on contractors.”

A state progress report from last month shows the status of Roverta and Franklin’s case. There is no timetable, no indication of when the old mobile home will be demolished and replaced with a sturdier modular house.

Instead, the report only shows that the home will be reassigned to yet another new contractor. Roverta and Franklin’s relocation status reads: “Pending the general contractor’s construction schedule.”

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.