RALEIGH — City officials want residents to move on - or at least clean up.
The city is cracking down on property owners who have yet to clear construction and vegetative debris from the April 16 tornado that ripped through an eastern swath of the city.
Debris must be removed because it poses health and safety risks, not to mention violates Raleigh's public nuisance code, said Ashley Glover, a senior city house inspector. Remaining wreckage leaves properties and neighborhoods vulnerable to risks such as rats and fire.
Since June, city inspectors have been sending letters to property owners who have yet to clear storm debris from their lots.
But now, the city is applying tighter deadlines to the cleanup - and fines for those who don't comply. Several property owners could be getting bills from the city any day now.
Some residents, though, are struggling with the city's timeline, facing either insurance issues or rejections for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"City and county and state governments [are] notorious for being heavy handed on the general public," said Bart Walker, whose sister's home was nearly leveled in the tornado. "A lot of times I feel they kind of become dictators instead of public servants."
The city's thinking: Enough time has passed since the storms; cleanup should be wrapped up.
First a fee, then a lien
After the tornado, the state removed fallen trees, broken limbs and other damaged vegetation on its land throughout East Raleigh, and the city followed for a while with special pickups when residents called in.
The city began issuing notices after its allowances for vegetative debris removal expired June 17. The notices are pretty basic: If debris isn't removed within 10 days, owners will be charged a $175 fee.
And then? "We'll send a crew out to remove the debris, watch them remove the debris, and then send a bill to the property owner," Glover said. "If they don't pay the bill in time, we'll place a lien on the house."
It isn't clear how many properties have received notices to remove remaining debris. The inspections office does not distinguish between notices issued for tornado damage and those for other violations. Most homes, though, have been complying within the 10-day period, Glover said.
But the inspections office is already gearing up to force cleaning crews into at least three properties in some of the hardest-hit parts of the cities.
Two of them are in the King Charles area in eastern Raleigh. The other is near Serendipity Drive in northeastern Raleigh.
The economy is the problem
Property owners have always been responsible for removing construction damages, such as caved-in roofs or wayward bricks.
As many remember, one of the last times Raleigh saw such prolonged devastation was with Hurricane Fran in 1996. And though debris removal then was an extremely long process, Glover said the isolated nature of the April tornadoes makes this process easier for the city and the community.
"There's not really a correlation between the two," he said.
A tough economy is the real reason behind most delays.
"The issues we run into now are that some of these properties are facing financial difficulty," Glover said. "Many of these (damaged) homes are already in pre-foreclosure status. It is taking some time to contact these property owners, and in some cases, we haven't gotten in contact."
Some homeowners' cleanup efforts have been delayed as they sort out insurance issues. Glover said his office will work with those who have received removal notices but are waiting on insurance claims.
"I would encourage them to contact us," he said.
Rejected by FEMA
About 1,000 storm-damaged residential and commercial buildings still need to be repaired.
Bart Walker was at one of them Wednesday.
The city condemned the home of his sister, Heidi Velazquez, just before Easter and later issued a notice stating that if it were not torn down, she would be charged $300 per day, Walker said.
Velazquez attended a hearing July 1 to assure the city that Walker, who owns a construction business in South Dakota, would handle the work.
For the past three weeks, he has been clearing the property, taking pieces of the home she's known for a decade to the dump. "I'm helping her out because she doesn't make too much," Walker said as he tore up what was left of his sister's floorboards. "She's working two jobs and hasn't taken a day off since this happened."
Although insurance provided temporary housing and rental furniture for Velazquez, FEMA rejected her application for disaster assistance, Walker said.
Walker planned to return to South Dakota this week. But he'll likely return to Raleigh in August to help his sister and her family move to their new residence, a fixer-upper next door.
He plans to help his sister renovate it and maybe help cover the cost of living there.
"She'll hang onto (the original lot) and maybe in a year or two build a house," he said. "My thing was to get her into a place where she maybe wouldn't have a mortgage, because it's hard times for a lot of people."
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