Editor's note: A story on Monday's front page incorrectly described the rivers that border Pamlico County in eastern North Carolina. The county is flanked by the Pamlico and Neuse rivers.
PAMLICO COUNTY -- Wade Miller did everything he should have before and after Hurricane Irene.
He pulled out the walls of his home in Merritt and used buckets of Clorox to clean and ward off mold. He called his insurance agent days after the storm and filed a claim under the costly flood insurance he'd maintained on his low-lying Pamlico County home since 1995.
Still, five months after the storm washed through thousands of homes in this rural county flanked by the Pamlico and Neuse rivers, Miller is still camping out at his brother's house, waiting for his home to be repaired.
Miller is one of many residents in rural Eastern North Carolina whose recovery from Irene is hampered by long waiting lists for limited contractors and exhaustive requirements by mortgage companies that hold the insurance settlements. In Pamlico County, construction workers are driving in from up to an hour and a half away to meet demand; local contractors are booked up months down the road.
"I know people have more troubles than me, but I'm tired of waiting patiently," said Miller, 48, a data processor for the Navy.
Recovery has been slow and elusive for even the most prepared and resourceful residents struck by Irene's wreckage. The ill-equipped face homelessness and forced relocation, but even for those who saved for such a disaster, getting back home is proving difficult.
"We just can't seem to get many people back on track," said Dawn Baldwin Gibson, head of Pamlico County's volunteer disaster recovery coalition. "Most of us waiting on builders are too ashamed to complain when our neighbors have nothing."
Cecil "Hank" Williams, a longtime general contractor in Pamlico County, said builders can't move faster when dealing with mortgage company requirements and low-ball settlements from insurance companies.
Almost always, and especially with costly settlements, insurance companies send their payments to the mortgage company, not the homeowner. Because the mortgage company is part-owner of the home, it has a vested interest in making sure repairs are done right by reputable contractors.
Each company can establish its own rules for how to release the money and what it requires of the contractor and homeowner before it does. The N.C. Department of Insurance has received complaints from homeowners frustrated by an inability to get their hands on an insurance settlement, but spokeswoman Kerry Hall said it has no control over mortgage companies, just insurance companies.
Williams, 65, said he's been waiting for more than a month for payment on a job because the mortgage company hasn't released the money. He turned down a roofing project for a customer because the insurance settlement couldn't meet his costs. And, on another house, he's been waiting for more than a week on a mid-job inspection by the mortgage company before he can move forward.
"It's a little more paperwork than we're used to, and some contractors don't even want to fool with the jobs that require mortgage companies," Williams said.
Patience wearing thin
Miller paid more than a thousand dollars for flood insurance each year for his modest home in the town of Merritt on the off-chance a nearby creek would push water into his home. That chance became a reality with Irene, and the 2 feet of water that came inside and ruined his floor and walls.
His heating system is beyond repair, and part of his roof is sagging. An insurance adjuster sent his mortgage company a check for $24,000 weeks after the storm, Miller said.
And that's where Miller's progress has stopped. Only about a dozen bonded and insured building firms - a requirement of many mortgage companies - do business in Pamlico County. He still hasn't gotten an estimate from the two that came out to bid on the project. Once he does, that will be the start of another long process with the mortgage company.
Miller said the company wants an itemized list of parts and labor and wants to approve the estimate before releasing a check for the first third of the damage.
He worries he is being bypassed for customers who are paying for repairs outright.
"My house may get wiped out by another hurricane before I can get anybody over here to fix it," Miller said.
Sylvia Ross said her patience is wearing thin, too. So is her time in a temporary trailer loaned from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA officials have given her until April 1 to move out of the FEMA trailer, but lately they've been urging her to move more quickly. Inside the home where she was raised, the bottom half of the walls are bare to its studs. She covered holes in the floor with rugs to keep out a cold draft and snakes.
Ross, 67, moved back to her family's homestead in the fishing village of Lowland six years ago after her husband died. She kept up insurance payments, even the costly flood insurance.
Ross owned her house outright and has her insurance settlement in hand. But she waits for the crew she hired last fall to get clear of other jobs. She fears that she is being pushed behind other jobs that might be more lucrative.
The start date has been delayed so many times that now she'll be forced to live in the home while contractors sand and cut and nail the missing pieces back together. She figures she will sleep in a back room and use an electric heater instead of turning on the central heating system. Ross said she'll find a way to get through it.
"It's my home and has been all my life. I am digging in and staying," she said.
Can't afford to wait
On the other side of Goose Creek Island, in the village of Hobucken, Jack and Lucille Sadler were among the first to return home in early February.
But their home looks nothing like the 85-year-old house where they raised their children.
The Sadlers weren't ready to give up their life here, but they weren't willing to get in line and wait for a contractor to come and build back their home from scratch.
Jack Sadler, 76, ordered a custom trailer. A tractor-trailer delivered it late January, and a team from out of town came in with a foundation to lift it 8 feet off the ground.
Now, two flights of stairs lead to their front door.
"Our next move will be to a nursing home or the grave," said Lucille Sadler, 72. "How long could we really afford to wait?"