COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – It was a storm that devastated Southeastern North Carolina. But nearly three years after Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, some living in the area are still waiting for their life to return to normal.
Sallie Hamilton and her late husband bought their home in Whiteville 24 years ago. When Hurricane Florence dumped 26 inches of rain on Whiteville in just a few short days, Hamilton’s home flooded and she had to evacuate. When she returned after the flooding subsided, her home was covered in mold.
Hamilton said she had insurance, but it was not enough to cover the estimated $85,000 in damages to her home. That’s when she learned about Rebuild NC, a state agency that administers federal disaster recovery money to help people impacted by natural disasters.
“What we do, as the funder of last resort, which means we come in after FEMA and SBA have done what they can do, we come in and finish the job. And if that means reconstruction that means reconstruction, and if it means elevation or repair or reimbursement, that is what our office does,” Laura Hogshead, director of the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, told WECT.
The decision to repair
While the damage to Hamilton’s home was extensive, it was not beyond repair. Rebuild NC told Hamilton they could rebuild her home, repair it, or relocate her to a new home. She chose to have the home repaired, but now regrets that decision. The 76-year-old widow is still living in a hotel room nearly three years after Florence made landfall, with no guarantee when she’ll be able to return home.
“Things have just been going bad for me ever since I joined this program. I wish I never got into it, but at the time I didn’t have the money to really fix the house,” Hamilton explained of her decision.
After she was first displaced, Hamilton spent several months living at the Econo Lodge in Whiteville. Rebuild NC paid the hotel bill, but Hamilton said she didn’t feel safe there. She then moved in with a relative in South Carolina, but after several months, that arrangement wasn’t working out well and Hamilton decided she’d go back to a hotel until her home repairs were finished.
She’s spent the last ten months at the Comfort Suites in Lumberton. It’s a 40-minute drive from her house, but she chose it because it’s safe and pet-friendly, which is important because she has a dog. Hamilton says she’s very pleased with the hotel, but it’s just not home.
Adding to her difficulty, Hamilton’s furniture and appliances have been stolen from her property while she’s been gone. The thief also stole her security cameras. Hamilton says people know the house is unoccupied, making it a target.
Rebuild NC contracted with Lady Built Construction out of Robeson County to make the repairs to Hamilton’s home. Construction began in March 2020, and Rebuild NC said the repairs would to take 90 days to finish. But that amount of time has passed many times over, and Hamilton is still waiting.
“In a year’s time, they haven’t even completed one room. Not one room,” Hamilton said of her exasperation over the situation. “It’s frustrating. One day honey, I just started crying. I was just shaking and I call Pastor Ronnie. I go to his church right up the road there. Told me to meet him at the house, this house here, and he prayed for me.”
Hamilton’s pastor, Rev. Ronnie Wilson, tried to help her, and when he felt like he’d exhausted all the avenues he could think of, he emailed WECT on Hamilton’s behalf, asking for help getting her back in her home.
While you may think Hamilton’s case is an outlier, WECT learned she’s one of thousands still waiting to return home.
“We have about 5,000 applicants and of those about 650 are in the construction process, and about 675 have finished the construction process. The rest are in benefits verification and are getting through to the work stage,” Hogshead said of the backlog of applicants displaced by Hurricanes Florence and Matthew who turned to their agency for help. “Because it’s a federal program, there are a number of hoops to jump through, so we have to verify the previous benefits, we have to verify the level of damage on their home. There are a number of inspections that have to happen including lead and asbestos inspections. The rest of those homeowners are somewhere in those steps that are preconstruction steps.”
Hogshead added that recently, supply-chain disruptions caused by the pandemic have contributed to the delays. Some builders are having trouble getting materials. Many other residents are waiting to move into manufactured homes, which Hogshead said have been slow to come off the assembly line.
The delays are not just a frustrating problem for Hamilton and others, they are an expensive problem for taxpayers at large. While Rebuild NC says they are able to negotiate monthly rates with hotels putting up displaced residents, Hamilton’s lodging bills alone over the last two years have added up to $30,703.96 and counting. The state has paid out another $12,615 in storage payments for Hamilton’s furniture and appliances.
Several weeks after we first tried to reach them, Lady Built Construction called us back. Sarah Bullard, the general contractor, said the delays with Hamilton’s home are the result of unfortunate timing. The COVID shutdown hit the same month they began construction. Once things began reopening, they were limited in how many workers they could send to a job site, and they had a hard time finding enough employees to come to work at all.
“It has been quite a struggle for her home and all of her jobs,” Bullard told WECT. “We have received final approval from the county and expect her to be back in her home by next week.”
Bullard also said there have been long delays getting building supplies like windows. She added that Hamilton has changed her mind several times on carpet and paint color selections, which has further slowed the project. However, after we contacted the contractor and the state looking for answers, things stated to move faster. The power to Hamilton’s home was turned back on for the first time, and she now has light in a few rooms.
At last check, the state has paid Lady Built Construction $34,945 for finishing roughly half of the job. With the project nearing completion, the contractor will likely be getting the remainder of their payment soon.
“We have very strict standards for our general contractors, and if they don’t meet those standards they don’t win any further contracts from us,” Hogshead said of policing contractors who have been missing deadlines. “We do watch our contractors very carefully. They are held to a certain number of days that they are required to complete the home in. If they are not going to complete the home in that number of days, they owe us an explanation and the homeowner an explanation. So if this is dragging on… we are watching those projects and making sure that it’s a legitimate delay and not some thing that the contractor can control.”
The state added that after repairs on Hamilton’s house began, crews realized the damage to her home was more serious than they first thought. So the scope of the project increased, impacting the construction timeline and increasing the cost of the repair bill by $40,000.
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