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Waiting (and waiting) to rebuild

Eight months after Hurricane Florence hit, recovery efforts have stalled for thousands in North Carolina

Waiting (and waiting) to rebuild

Volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse walk past damage left by Hurricane Florence in Leland, N.C. (Ken Blevins/The Star-News via AP)

Felton and Geraldine Eubanks did not have flood insurance. Their home of 53 years in rural Trenton, N.C., is in a low-risk area for flooding, according to state records. Prior to Hurricane Florence, they hadn’t needed flood insurance. 

“We had never been flooded. Never,” Geraldine said. When the last two big hurricanes hit the state (Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Matthew in 2016), nearby neighbors and family members whose homes weren’t as elevated found refuge in the Eubankses’ home.

When Florence hit last September, they assumed they would stay high and dry. On Friday night, Geraldine looked outside around midnight, but didn’t see any water, so she went to bed. “The next morning at 7 a.m. I got up and it was in our yard already. So we couldn’t get out at that point.” They also couldn’t call for help, because infrastructure damage from the storm had largely knocked out the area’s phone lines.

A neighbor who had evacuated Friday night attempted to come check on his house, but ran into flooded roads. He passed on the word about the Eubankses, and a volunteer rescue team from Georgia heard about their plight. When the rescue boats came Saturday night, responders plucked 14 people from the Eubankses’ home. A dozen neighbors and family members had migrated there from more dire situations. By that point, water had risen to the garage. When her son-in-law came back by boat on Monday, he found 18 inches of water inside.

David Goldman/AP

Part of the Starlite Motel in Spring Lake, N.C. is washed away in the aftermath of flooding from Hurricane Florence. (David Goldman/AP)

Eight months later, the couple are still living with their daughter and trying to get their house repaired so they can go home. They are not alone. The state is currently caught in an impasse found in other disaster recovery areas, such as Houston, Texas, the Florida Panhandle, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In North Carolina’s rural areas and coastal towns, tourist attractions open for business give signs that all is well, but houses with tarped roofs and gutted insides tell a different story. Displaced residents are still couch-surfing with friends and relatives, sheltering in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or watching their savings dwindle from hotel and motel stays. (FEMA and state aid for hotel stays ended in March.)

With hurricane season set to begin June 1, it’s possible more storms could pile onto the state’s backlogged rebuild. Meanwhile, disaster funding has become the latest victim of partisan gridlock in Congress, leaving residents like the Eubankses to find their best hope for recovery in volunteer and faith-based organizations.

When Florence hit the Carolinas and part of Virginia on Sept. 14, 2018, she slowed to a crawl. Over the next six days, Florence dumped an estimated 10 trillion gallons of water across 14,000 square miles. Heavy winds peeled the roofs off houses, battered infrastructure, and downed trees, while a storm surge brought record-breaking river flooding. Florence caused an estimated $22 billion in damages ($17 billion in North Carolina), knocked out power for over 1 million people, and resulted in 44 deaths. 

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency. Federal, state, and local officials mounted a strong first response: State troopers, the Marine Corps, National Guard soldiers, and volunteers rescued over 5,000 people from floodwaters. Volunteer groups partnered with area churches to set up distribution centers and food kitchens and to tarp roofs, muck out homes, and clear debris. 

“Disaster relief trucks rolled in the day the storm rolled out,” said Chad Brewer, campus pastor of Port City Community Church in New Bern, N.C.

Congress initially approved $1.14 billion for North Carolina disaster relief in October 2018. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., called the measure a “downpayment” of federal aid for long-term recovery. But recently, lawmakers failed to pass a fuller $13 billion disaster relief package that would have provided more relief for the state, as well as aid for Florida, Georgia, California, and the Midwest. Democrats rejected the package, arguing it did not include enough funding for Puerto Rico.

They introduced their own $17.2 billion disaster aid package that offers more funding for the territory. Republicans wary of passing anything President Donald Trump won’t sign have argued that the dispute over funding for Puerto Rico should not hold up aid for other areas hammered by disasters. Trump has accused Puerto Rican leaders of mismanaging the $11 billion in aid they have received so far. Unable to resolve the dispute, lawmakers left for a two-week spring recess in the middle of April. After reconvening on April 29, they are in the throes of hammering out a compromise.

North Carolina state legislators designated $400 million for initial recovery spending, with an additional $450 million for future recovery.

Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP

A worker renovates a home in Pollocksville after damage caused by Hurricane Florence. (Gray Whitley/Sun Journal via AP)

Keith Acree, spokesman for North Carolina Emergency Management, said the state has largely completed “small infrastructure” projects, such as clearing debris and getting power restored, but is still getting bigger projects, like road repairs, underway. “You’re trying to prepare for the next hurricane season, which is almost upon us, and are still trying to recover from the hurricane seasons of the past three years.”

North Carolina does not have a number for how many people Florence displaced, but an initial assessment estimated the storm damaged 74,400 homes and displaced tens of thousands of people as a result. Only around 21,000 of those homes had enough flood insurance for complete repairs, while another 1,800 homes could get enough for partial repairs.

The state partnered with FEMA to fund a program called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP), a six-month program that offered partial repairs to get people back home as quickly as possible. Each home is mucked out and treated for mold; the flooring is replaced; unfinished drywall is put on the walls; one bathroom is partially repaired; and a sink, mini-fridge, hot plate, microwave, and a couple of doors are installed.

North Carolina partnered with private contractors and two faith-based groups, the North Carolina Baptist Men on Mission and the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), to carry out the repairs.

Harvest Prude

North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church (Harvest Prude)

By December 2018, FEMA identified 16,000 homeowners who qualified for STEP, but Acree said the number eventually dwindled down to 4,000. When the April 2 deadline ended, they had helped 2,183 homes.

Al Miller, director of disaster ministries for the UMC Conference, praised the STEP program for covering the cost of initial repairs, allowing the faith-based group’s resources to stretch further.

However, STEP only took on homes that had up to $17,000 in damages. Officials told homeowners with damages exceeding that amount to seek aid from faith-based and volunteer groups or other state programs.

But even residents who qualified for STEP faced long waits because “contractors are booked for the next one, two years,” Alex Hunt, a construction manager with UMC’s team, explained.

The Eubankses’ son, who lives next door, received STEP aid, as well as money from flood insurance. But he’s still waiting on long-term repairs because “it’s hard to find contractors to help because everybody is so busy,” Geraldine said.

Harvest Prude

Workers with Samaritan’s Purse clear flood damage. (Harvest Prude)

The Eubankses noted that the stress and difficulty have caused some area families simply to move away. “We’ve understood there’s not gonna be but five or six families left,” Geraldine said of their immediate area. “Used to be 16.” 

She said the family reached out to a lot of programs, “but the N.C. STEP program is the only one that really came and did anything. And I can’t recommend that.” 

The contracting team STEP hired put in new flooring and a partial bathroom, but the pipes sprang a leak, causing rot in the floorboards. The bathroom had to be ripped out for a second time.

But in mid-April, Samaritan’s Purse began construction on their home after a member of the Eubankses' church told the group about the family’s situation.

“If we hadn’t had faith, ... if we hadn’t had the Lord Jesus Christ on our side, we wouldn’t have made it,” Geraldine said. She added, “And we’ve got flood insurance now.”

State and volunteer groups estimate the rebuild efforts could take anywhere from two to five years.

Sean Rayford/AP

A home damaged by flooding from Hurricane Florence near the Crabtree Swamp sits empty. (Sean Rayford/AP)

“Hurricane recovery is not a six-month, not even a year, timeline,” Acree said. “Are we still going to be repairing things five years after the storm? Probably. Our hope is that we’re not hit with another big one in the meantime.”

While lawmakers are tied up in knots and state programs are still getting off the ground, the faith-based groups emphasized that their biggest need is not primarily dollars but people who will contribute their time and skill.

“We supply the materials, we supply the tools ... but we need hands,” Miller said. “We need people to be the hands and feet of Christ to come help us as we get our people home again. All our clients want to do is get back home again.”

—This story has been corrected. The Eubanks family had qualified for FEMA flood insurance.

Flooded again and again

Flooding is the most common and the most costly natural disaster in the United States, according to FEMA. Compounding the cost to taxpayers is that the federal government subsidizes flood insurance, artificially lowering the cost of living in flood-prone areas.

As a result, thousands of properties, dubbed “repetitive loss properties,” that have flooded multiple times continue to be rebuilt under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). These properties make up over 25 percent of flood claims and, as of 2016, had cost taxpayers more than $12.5 billion, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Jason Lee/The Sun News via AP

The Polo Farms neighborhood off S.C. Highway 905 suffered extensive damage due to Hurricane Florence's deluge. (Jason Lee/The Sun News via AP)

NFIP is currently over $20 billion in debt, even after Congress forgave $15 billion it owed to the U.S. Treasury last year.

When the NFIP came up for reauthorization in 2017, the House of Representatives introduced a bill to address some of the program’s woes, but the Senate kicked reforms down the road. Since then, lawmakers have continued to pass short-term extensions funding the program. The House passed the 11th extension, which runs through Sept. 30, on May 14. It’s unclear whether the Senate will follow suit. But under the split Congress, drastic changes seem even less viable than they were two years ago.

In the meantime, the Trump administration is seeking to address reforms on its own. In March, FEMA announced it is updating how it assesses a property’s risk of flooding. The update will result in across-the-board rate changes, but ones that more accurately reflect the cost. The Risk Rating 2.0 program will use private sector data to assess the flooding risk of each individual property and assign cost of insurance accordingly.

The current model, in place since the 1970s, assesses risk and assigns price based on only one factor: whether the home is located inside or outside of a 100-year flood plain. According to the Congressional Budget Office, some counties had maps over 16 years old and in dire need of updating.

FEMA will announce the new rates under the Risk Rating 2.0 program next spring, and rates will take effect for single family homes in October 2020. —H.P.

Harvest Prude

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a reporter for WORLD based in Washington, D.C.