As construction delays continue, ReBuild NC is incurring enormous costs to house displaced Hurricane Matthew survivors in motels

By: - July 11, 2022 12:57 pm

Geraldine and Willie Williams have been living in a motel for nearly two and a half years. Their home is supposed to be rebuilt as part of the Hurricane Matthew disaster relief program run by the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency. However, construction hasn’t begun, and their old home hasn’t even been torn down yet. Geraldine survived COVID twice; she also administers herself home kidney dialysis. An Army veteran, Willie had open heart surgery last year. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This story is part of a continuing series on NCORR’s mismanagement of its Hurricane Matthew disaster relief homeowner program

Displaced homeowners also finding their belongings damaged in mobile storage units; state paid for them but says it’s not responsible

The NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency,  also known as ReBuild NC, could not produce records to Policy Watch of how much money it has spent in the last five years on motels and storage units for people displaced by Hurricane Matthew, according to a spokesperson’s email.

However, based on figures for just six families, the amount likely runs into the millions of dollars.

After the historic storm devastated eastern North Carolina in October 2016, the state received $236 million in federal disaster relief money to rebuild or renovate single-family homes that sustained major or severe damage. ReBuild NC pays for motels and storage units for low-income homeowners while they are displaced. This is called Temporary Relocation Assistance.

Yet since NCORR was created by the legislature in late 2018, construction delays and program mismanagement have prevented thousands of people from returning to their homes on time. These hurricane survivors have been living in motels, with relatives or even in their dilapidated houses for months, even years.

Meanwhile, the homeowners’ belongings have been stored in mobile storage units outdoors, some for longer than two years. In some cases, those belongings have been ruined because the units have leaked or been infested with rodents and insects.

Policy Watch filed a public records request on April 13 requesting documents related to motel and storage unit expenditures. Policy Watch offered to accept invoices because state law does not require agencies to create a record for a requester.

The text of the request:

This request is in reference to Hurricane Matthew recovery. As for Nos. 3 and 4, if those totals are not available, I can accept all invoices related to those requests and calculate the days myself.

1) Yearly total expenditures on motel bills for displaced residents who are awaiting new or renovated housing due to Hurricane Matthew damage
2) Yearly total expenditures on motel bills broken out by county
3) Yearly total number of days spent in motels by all displaced residents
4) Yearly total number of days spent in motels, per county
5) Yearly total expenditures on storage facilities, including PODS or similar structures, for displaced residents
6) Yearly total expenditures on storage facilities, including PODS or similar mobile structures, for displaced residents, by county”

After receiving the request and multiple follow-ups, an ReBuild NC spokesperson responded:

We have been notified that no records exist as described in your records request, so staff is working to compile information that will answer your questions.”

Without state records it’s difficult to estimate how much ReBuild NC has spent, a key figure in determining the costs of this aspect of the program. And depending on the extent of work required on a home, it’s feasible that the motel and storage unit costs could approach the cost of those repairs.

Even at a discounted state rate, with county and state tax exemptions, the motel expenses are mounting. The totals for just six households exceeds $310,000 — and according to state records, hundreds more households remain displaced.

ReBuild NC’s total expenditures would not include reduced stipends it pays to displaced people who are living with relatives. Nor do these totals include the cost of the mobile storage units.

  • James Cade of Lumberton has lived with his wife in a mid-range hotel for 14 months. Based on that rate, the state has paid about $33,000 for their stay, equivalent to about $2,357 per month. Five PODS are sitting in the family’s yard. Fair market rent in Robeson County for a two-bedroom apartment is $671 a month.
  • Sam Cockrell of Lucama has been displaced for more than a year; his motel bill would be similar to the Cades’.
  • A single homeowner told Policy Watch they have been displaced for two and a half years, and lived in a motel the entire time. Receipts from the first motel show the state paid nearly $50,000 for the first 640 days. Since then, the person has transferred to another motel, for which receipts aren’t available. However, at the $80-a-night-rate, ReBuild NC could have paid roughly another $17,000, bringing the entire cost of the motel stay to at least $67,000. Those expenses do not include the two PODS sitting in the driveway.
  • One family told Policy Watch they have been living in two rooms at a motel for 19 months, totaling at least $91,000, not including the cost of the mobile storage units. The family asked not to be named because they are afraid they will be retaliated against and construction on their home will be delayed.
  • A fourth homeowner reported to Policy Watch that receipts show ReBuild NC paid $21,000 for a six-month stay.
  • The rate at a Home2 Suites in Goldsboro, where some people are still living, is $100 a night, according to a person who answered the phone. The state is behind on paying motel bills there, she said. She declined to provide additional details, only to say that the state pays the bills “little by little.”

In a previous email with Policy Watch, ReBuild NC attributed late payments to an outside contractor. However, ReBuild NC also said it was bringing those duties in-house.

  • Willie and Geraldine Williams have been living in a Kinston motel room for 844 days. Based on mid-range rates of $77 to $80 nightly, the state has incurred at least $68,000 in motel bills for the Williamses. The family has two PODS, at state expense. This breaks down to roughly $2,400 a month for the state to house them. By comparison, monthly rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Kinston range from $650 to $800 a month, not including utilities. However, if the Williamses lived in an apartment, it’s unlikely they would need PODs.

The Williams family’s situation illustrates the inefficiencies in the program. They moved out of their home in Ayden on March 19, 2020. Initially ReBuild NC and a contractor determined that the house needed only repairs. After installing new flooring, windows and air conditioning, inspectors said the home was structurally unsound and needed to be torn down and rebuilt.

The Williams family has no kitchen in the motel, so for the past two years they’ve either eaten take out meals or bought snacks that can be eaten without cooking. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Not until 2021 did contractors arrive to raze the house. However, they only removed the brick facade and the porch, leaving the ruins in piles on the property. The rest of the house still stands, and no work has been done on it for a year. The front yard is now a small marsh with cattails growing in it.

Geraldine Williams receives calls from the case manager about every two weeks, but that person can’t answer any of her questions. “They can’t tell me anything, not even the name of the contractor,” she said. (State records show that as of April 2022, it was Rescue Construction.) “They ask me if I have any questions,” said Geraldine Williams, as she sat in her motel room surrounded by clothes and kidney dialysis equipment. “I have only one question and it’s the same as last time: When am I going to get back in my home?”

Belongings ruined in storage units; ReBuild NC says it’s not responsible

For most displaced families, most everything they own is now sitting in mobile storage units, sometimes for more than a year.

Many homeowners told Policy Watch that they had received a letter from ReBuild NC requiring them to agree in writing that the state is not responsible for any damage to the contents of their mobile storage units. Instead, the letter directs homeowners who believe their belongings were damaged while in storage to contact the storage unit company for a claim.

The state pays for the storage units, but an ReBuild NC spokeswoman told Policy Watch via email that the agreement is between the storage unit company and the homeowner. 

Many homeowners told Policy Watch they never signed such an agreement when they entered the program. What they do remember, is being told by ReBuild NC they would be out of their homes for no more than six months.

While it’s common for storage unit companies to require these agreements, said A.D. Skaff, supervising attorney for disaster relief at Legal Aid of North Carolina, homeowners were not aware their belongings would be in storage for so long — in some cases, years. These structures are not intended for long-term use outdoors. For that purpose, the storage units are moved inside and depending on the contents, even in a climate-controlled building.

Skaff told Policy Watch that in a review of her clients’ agreement documents with ReBuild NC, she could find none that specifically absolved the state of liability. 

Carolyn McFarlin of Tarboro has been displaced for seven months. No work has been started on her home. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

That’s because the document was not included in the homeowners’ original package for Temporary Location Assistance. It was created last August and sent to homeowners whose belongings were in the units. ReBuild NC said it sent the letter, “to homeowners that were confused about who to contact regarding concerns with potential damage to items stored in the units. Unfortunately, in some instances, items may have been damaged prior to being placed in storage due to flooding or other storm-related issues, which could trigger mold and mildew in the unit.”

Only now is the agreement a routine part of the application. “From that point forward, the form has been provided to applicants as they enter Temporary Relocation Assistance,” an ReBuild NC spokesperson wrote in an email to Policy Watch.

Charles Wright, who advocates for several displaced homeowners in Wayne County, said requiring applicants to sign an agreement “this late in the process is very problematic. I think it’s a new form for a new problem.”

Carolyn McFarlin thought she would be back home within three months, according to ReBuild NC estimates. ReBuild NC moved her out of her home last November so renovations could begin, such as rewiring the home, replacing a stove, and repairing the soft spots in the floors and a moldy ceiling.

None of that work has begun. McFarlin has been living with her sister. “It’s stressful,” McFarlin said. “Even though it’s family, the house is still not yours.”

McFarlin’s belongings are stored in three PODS on her property in Tarboro. She opened them last week to find mold growing on a bed headboard.

Had the contractor started renovations shortly ReBuild NC moved McFarlin out of her house, she and her belongings — without the mold — would likely be back home now.

“I don’t understand why they moved me out of my house if they weren’t going to start the work,” she said.

Almost all of Geraldine and Willie Williams’ belongings — anything that can’t fit in a small motel room — are packed in two PODS and a barn. Willie Williams opened one unit last weekend. Boxes and clothing was rife with rodent feces and urine. Other items had been chewed on, presumably by rats or mice.

Now they will have to buy new clothes, dishes and other household items. “There’s nothing in that POD that I want to bring back in my house,” Geraldine Williams said.

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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.