Flood waters isolate homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence Sept. 19, 2018 in Robeson County. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Leoni entered this world on Jan. 23, a daughter of Donnie Red Hawk McDowell and his wife, Humming Bird, hurricane survivors and members of the Tuscarora Nation.
In March, Leoni, her 3-year-old sister, Dyani, and their parents moved to a room on the second floor of an Extended Stay America in Fayetteville while their new mobile home was installed near Maxton.
McDowell and his family had lived in their damaged mobile home since Hurricane Florence. They had endured a three-year odyssey with ReBuild NC, which last October acknowledged their file “was mismanaged by our vendor case management partner” – Horne, a national firm with which Rebuild has long contracted.
Then Leoni arrived, a source of joy. And the family felt hopeful when they moved into the Extended Stay. Their old home had been demolished. A new one was on the way.
Shortly after moving into the motel, though, “management said they got a noise complaint after quiet hours,” said McDowell, who shared the contents of the note with Policy Watch and Rebuild NC staff. “The management said if it continued they would take further action. But no one would tell me what the complaint was about or what the action would be.”
McDowell speculates the complaint was about his infant daughter, who like most babies, cries in the middle of the night, during quiet hours.
“My newborn baby is not on anyone’s schedule but her own,” McDowell said. “It’s as if the hotel management expects we can turn her off between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.”
McDowell’s family is one of thousands of people who since 2019 have been exiled to one- and two-star motels while their homes are repaired, replaced or rebuilt.
As of this month, ReBuild NC had spent $19.3 million on Temporary Location Assistance, which pays for motels, apartments or other rental arrangements, and mobile storage units for people waiting for their permanent homes to be repaired or rebuilt.
A Policy Watch investigation over the past year has revealed a pattern of mismanagement and secrecy at ReBuild NC. Those findings prompted state lawmakers to form a special oversight committee to probe the program’s operations.
And on Feb. 1, Richard Trumper, who led a successful state disaster recovery program in South Carolina, was appointed by Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe as a senior advisor at ReBuild NC. However, Trumper’s managerial power is unclear. DPS, which is over the program, has been careful to explain that ReBuild NC Director Laura Hogshead is still in charge – even though she has acknowledged she is responsible for the program’s many failures.
Trumper and Hogshead are expected to testify Wednesday before a government operations subcommittee investigating the ReBuild NC program. This will be the third hearing since September.
Several top people at ReBuild have resigned since or shortly before the December hearing, including Chief Program Delivery Officer Ivan Duncan, Chief of External Affairs Jaime Fuquay, and most recently Moneka Jani.
Jani worked for IEM, a ReBuild NC contractor, before the agency hired her as Chief Recovery Officer in late 2019. In May 2022, she became an “adviser,” whose job duties were unclear, but still commanded a $100,000-plus salary, state records show.
Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery
Wednesday, March 29, 10 a.m.
Legislative Building Auditorium, also available via livestream
See documents here
There have been improvements since Trumper was hired: More general contractors are participating, as are volunteer disaster relief groups. In turn, some homeowners whose cases had been languishing are beginning to see changes.
But ReBuild still faces serious problems that will take time to fix.
Documents uploaded to the committee website, and from information in previous testimony and state records, show that ReBuild NC often failed to do due diligence before approving a site plan for a home.
This has caused extensive delays because counties determined that some homes were too large for their lots or for a septic permit, as specified in local ordinances.
Marsha Funderburk of the Columbus County Building Inspections Department wrote a letter in December to ReBuild NC. In it, she complained about the problems the agency was causing homeowners and local officials.
“ReBuild takes one year to approve the application. They never call the county to see if the property meets the ordinance … I have found one client to be fraud[ulent] and the county does not participate in fraudulent activities.”
Funderburk wrote that she had spoken with Ivan Duncan, then the chief program delivery officer, and made him aware of the alleged fraud. “I was told to push this through anyways.”
Duncan resigned suddenly in late November 2022 and has since moved back to New York City, where he works in real estate.
The committee has also been zeroing in on Rescue Construction Solutions.
In its investigative series, Policy Watch has examined Rescue’s performance and the business relationship between Ivan Duncan and Sheila Brewington, the company president. Notes from contractor meetings show Duncan gave Rescue preferential treatment, holding it to different performance standards so it could continue bidding on projects.
Rescue won a $52 million bid to build 226 modular homes in August 2021. At the time, ReBuild NC officials said the modular program would get homes built more quickly. But by the end of February 2023 Rescue had completed just 20 of the 226 in the award package.
Pennwest Homes, a national modular home builder based in Pennsylvania, sent a letter to the committee last week.
Since last summer, Pennwest has sold Rescue 14 homes, wrote Todd Griffith, general manager. Of those, 10 have been shipped. But Rescue has paid for only three of them.
Of the seven that have not been paid for, three are considered past due, meaning the invoice is older than 90 days.
Rescue ordered four more modulars, Griffith wrote, but they have been sitting at Pennwest for more than three months, awaiting Rescue’s request to ship them. Usually completed modulars stay at Pennwest no longer than two weeks.
“This puts us in a difficult position because we paid for the materials and now they are just sitting in finished goods. We can’t get paid until they ship.”
Rescue does have money coming in: ReBuild NC has paid the company $32 million as of February, according to an agency spokeswoman.
“When we question Rescue we are told the sites are not ready due to the weather and inability to get building permits,” Griffith wrote. “We’ve also been told the state is changing the priority list of what needs to be built. So we have homes built that got bumped for more important projects?”
Rescue committed to buying 10 modulars in January, February and March of this year, Griffith wrote.” We did not receive the orders … they told us they were too backed up to take any more houses right now.”
To expedite homebuilding, ReBuild NC has reassigned some projects that had been awarded to Rescue. Since Trumper was hired, many people who were scheduled to get modular homes are now receiving traditional stick-built houses, now thought to be the more expedient option.
After two years of being displaced, Roverta and Franklin, who Policy Watch profiled last summer, could move into their new modular home this spring.
The Goldsboro man who had lived in his car for several months while waiting for help from the program – his house has been framed.
As for Donnie McDowell and his family, their mobile home has arrived. Motel management apologized, the family could move into their new home – Shepherd Construction is their contractor – next month.
But there are many more people who remain in limbo. The Rebuild NC Applicant Experience Facebook page chronicles hundreds of survivors’ stories. All work has stopped on the repair of a home in Lenoir County. The owner has been out of his home since February 2020, and recently told Policy Watch that his contractor for the last 18 months, Rescue Construction Solutions, allowed the construction permit to expire.
Source: ReBuild NC quarterly reports, December 2022, the most recent available. The next report is not due until early April.
$238 million – Total amount awarded to ReBuild NC from HUD since 2017 for the disaster recovery housing
$151.2 million – Amount spent on homeowner recovery
$11.2 million – Amount spent on administration, including general operations and ReBuild NC salaries
738 – Number of homes completed
1,348 – Number of homes expected to be completed by mid-2024
54% – Percentage of homes completed
$542 million – Total amount awarded to ReBuild NC from HUD since March 2020 for disaster recovery housing
$84 million – Amount spent on homeowner recovery
$11.8 million – Amount spent on administration, including general operations and ReBuild NC salaries
107 – Number of homes completed
7,439 – Number of homes expected to be completed by mid-2026
1.4% – Percentage of homes completed
4,429 – Total number of applicants, as of March 2023
1,058* – Number of applicants in Step 8, which means the home is completed and ready, or nearly ready to move in.
$19.3 million – Amount ReBuild NC has spent on Temporary Relocation Assistance, which pays for motels or other rental housing, and mobile storage units for displaced homeowners, as of March 17.
*201 homes were built by Robeson County’s local program using HUD funds; 74 applicants received cash payments of up to $5,000 to complete their repairs independently.
ReBuild just received a $21.8 million from HUD to address rural homelessness, to launch a new program
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