Pandemic and labor shortages keep typhoon victims in limbo | Health, medicine and fitness

By Hannah Schonbaum and Gary D. Robertson – The Associated Press

RALLY, NC (AFP) – After nearly six years of flood damage from Hurricane Matthew, Thad Artis was displaced from his Goldsboro, North Carolina home, not being put into permanent housing.

Living alone in a hotel for the past two years, growing frustrated with what he sees as empty promises of quick action from government officials, the 68-year-old spends every penny on his wife’s health care after a stroke left her unable to walk.

Before he moved his wife to an assisted living facility, the two lived in their rickety home, about an hour southeast of Raleigh by car, for several years after the storm—both suffering from respiratory illnesses with mold spores growing on the roof and bird droppings scattered over their leaky roof. Cockroaches and “other scary reptiles” inhabited the kitchen floorboards. Artis said the back of the house was so rotten that the pigeons were about to fall to the floor.

“We stayed sick for a year,” he said. “The house and all the furniture, it’s gone, it’s rotten. We have nothing. I take everything I can get on the road to see and take care of her. I don’t give up because I have to help my wife.”

Awaiting an unfinished modular home in nearby Pikeville, Artis is among hundreds of low-income homeowners registered with the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience who are living in temporary accommodations years after the 2016 storm and Hurricane Florence in 2018.

A new bipartisan General Assembly committee tasked with investigating these delays in disaster relief will hold its first meeting on Wednesday — the fourth anniversary of Florence’s start in North Carolina.

Co-chair Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican whose district along the Neos River has been hit by some of the worst flood damage statewide, said he’s seeking accountability on behalf of displaced voters like Artis.

“We’ve had to deal with many hurricanes, tropical storms, and a pandemic, but these are the facts, not the excuse,” Bell said in an interview. “We have been discussing this issue back and forth for years now. We make some progress, then take a step back and then throw politics into it. It should never have gotten to that point.”

While meteorologists say the Atlantic hurricane season has been quiet this year — zero storms recorded in August — residents of storm-prone southeastern states remain vigilant. North Carolina officials are still working through long-term fixes from Matthew and Florence, and say labor shortages and supply chain problems have exacerbated existing challenges.

Laura Hoogshead, director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience, said in an interview that the complexities of COVID-19, exacerbated by rising prices and rising demand for contractors, have slowed efforts to make homeowners complete.

“I cannot overstate the impact of the pandemic, particularly on construction,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how good the general contractor is. If you can’t get the windows, you can’t get the windows. It was frustrating for everyone involved.”

Construction stumbles have left some funding recipients like Artis in short-term housing for months or even longer. Hogshead said this is partly due to two sellers of manufactured housing withdrawing from contracts with the state in 2021 and 2022 as unit prices rise.

The North Carolina legislature created NCORR in 2018, in part to distribute what became the $778 million in federal redemption funds that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded to Matthew in 2017 and Florence in 2020.

The agency has committed more than 60% of that money to support homeowners, with about $231 million already spent so far. Under the federal mandate, the money must be spent by mid-2026.

The money is used to make major repairs or replace homes owned by low-income families in counties hit by both storms. It also supports affordable, public housing projects that are less prone to flooding.

Spending this money is not designed to be easy, with multiple safeguards in place to ensure it is spent properly.

Homeowners must navigate an eight-step process designed to ensure they are eligible and have not actually received similar disaster relief funds. It includes an environmental review of their damaged property, followed by a grant, contractor selection and construction.

Of the nearly 4,200 home repossession applicants since Matthew’s money came in, nearly 800 projects have been completed, according to NCORR. But Hogshead said additional applicants – now more than 1,100 – are waiting to either find a contractor willing to take on a government-funded project with their additional paperwork, or for a contractor to start work.

Bell said he’s been making unannounced deliveries at construction sites in his area, sometimes finding far less progress than contractors have reported to the state.

“Honestly, we’ve had some situations where people haven’t been upfront about what’s been done,” Bell said.

As of Tuesday, 294 applicants currently awaiting repairs or a replacement fabricated home were living in temporary accommodation — often rental property or a hotel.

Shelitha Smith, 68, has lived in her damaged home in Fremont — a five-minute drive north of Bakeville — since Hurricane Matthew inundated the property in 2016, eliminating insulation, destroying the central air-conditioning unit and damaging the roof. Smith said she will finally move this week to a hotel so construction can begin.

“Finally, after two years of waiting, they are supposed to start building my house,” Smith said. “My house almost got flooded and I had to fix the whole side of my house that was due to water damage.”

Smith described the relief application process as “extremely frustrating” and said the decision to grant it was so minimal, she felt she had no choice but to appeal, further delaying the reforms.

“My house was at least livable,” Smith said, noting that she was not sure how long she would be in a hotel. “About two years waiting for them to start the repairs, but at least I have to stay in my house.”

With another hurricane season in full swing, Hoghead said she’s always checking the tropics for storms that could cause more damage or delay.

“The thing that really worries me is another storm,” she said. “The inconvenience of this apple cart in the middle of the construction process is the X-factor that none of us can control.”

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