In 50 or so counties that were power-washed by the waters of Hurricane Matthew, as many as 2,000 families with North Carolina addresses are living in the state of limbo.
“We can’t live in our house, and we can’t sell it,” said Latisha Beatty, who with her husband, Corey, owns a home in Bladen County that was swamped by the Black River after the October storm. “It’s been flooded twice. Who would buy it?”
The home first went underwater during flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and was repaired before the Beattys bought it 11 years ago. They shared it with their three children and had enlarged it to accommodate three additional family members.
All eight survived the flood, and they managed to snatch a few belongings from the home as the water came across the driveway and rose into the yard. Eventually, water submerged two vehicles that were left behind. It climbed more than three feet into the house.
When the water receded a week later and the Beattys went to see what was left, furniture and appliances were upended, floors were warped and mold was growing up the walls.
In the months since, volunteers have helped clean out the house, rip up the ruined floors and subfloors and cut down the molded drywall. The Beattys had flood insurance that would pay to repair some of the damage. But they would have to borrow the rest, and even if they could afford the additional monthly payments, they can’t move their middle son back into the house on N.C. 210 between Ivanhoe and Atkinson.
Kaleek Beatty, 11, had a kidney transplant in December and his doctors at Duke Health say living in a house where mold has festered would put him at risk of an infection or illness that could take his life.
“Absolutely not,” said Dr. Eileen Chambers, who has cared for Kaleek since shortly after a congenital kidney defect was discovered in his infancy.
Chambers said the house never could be made safe for a child whose immune system must be suppressed to keep his body from rejecting a donor organ.
Repairing and moving back into a flood-prone home might not present a major health risk for most of those displaced by the storm. But many who own homes that were flooded by Hurricane Matthew and previous storms now hope the government will help them elevate their houses beyond the water’s grasp, or just buy their homes, level them, turn the land into green space and free the families to start anew on higher ground.
They would do that through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, designed to reduce or eliminate losses from future disasters. Homeowners enter the program through town and county governments that choose to participate. Those local officials work with the state office of Emergency Management, which distributes federal funds for projects FEMA approves. FEMA provides most of the money for the work, with state or local governments contributing a portion.
North Carolina began using hazard mitigation on a large scale after Hurricane Floyd and became a national leader in the program, updating flood maps and hydrological data and overlaying satellite maps to help identify problem areas. Since Floyd, local governments have used hazard mitigation funds to buy 3,422 properties and elevate 124, according to the state. Homes acquired through the program must be razed and the land cleared. Afterward, the properties can never be used for permanent development again.
Homes that are elevated with hazard mitigation grants must be raised above the 100-year flood level.
Cities and counties that saw massive flooding from Hurricane Matthew are still gathering information, but Nick Burk, section manager for hazard mitigation grants at the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, said indications are that Matthew’s devastation will launch another huge wave of buyouts and elevations.
“Without a doubt this will be the largest-scale mitigation program since Hurricane Floyd,” Burk said. “We’re certainly looking at 1,000 to 2,000 structures, based on early estimates.”
A long process
Lenoir County and the city of Kinston were pioneers in hazard mitigation. They entered the program after Hurricane Fran in 1996, and vastly expanded the work after Hurricane Floyd, when the Neuse River hit record flood stage and submerged wide swaths of residential development. At early public meetings where the program was explained, said Roger Dail, the county’s emergency management director, people were suspicious, though all participation is voluntary and homeowners can stop the process at any moment right up to closing.
“After Fran, people were very reluctant,” Dail said. Most thought they would never see such high water again, and they didn’t want to give up land where their parents or grandparents had settled or where they had laid down roots themselves. Some feared they wouldn’t be adequately compensated, though the program is supposed to pay participants a pre-disaster fair-market price.
“Then three years later, Floyd comes along, and it was like a mad rush, people wanting to sign up,” Dail said. That time, Kinston and Lenoir County bought out more than 600 flood-prone homes.
Still, some homeowners stayed put, and were flooded again by Hurricane Matthew along with some people whose homes had stayed dry during previous storms.
So far, Dail said, 230 homeowners across the county have asked to be included in post-Matthew hazard mitigation.
Because the total amount of grant money is limited, not all who apply will get help. Local governments launch the process by sending a letter to the state asking to participate. Leaders hold local meetings where homeowners can learn how the program works, and do other outreach to gauge interest. Homeowners also can contact their local emergency management or planning office for help applying.
Local officials decide which mitigation choices to offer: acquisition, elevation, or a relatively new one, reconstruction. Not every town or county is expected to offer reconstruction, which is used when a house is too badly damaged to repair but there is no feasible way to relocate the household. The original house is torn down and rebuilt on the same footprint, but elevated above the flood line.
FEMA’s share of the cost of demolition and rebuild is capped at $150,000 per household.
The state will help local governments determine which properties are eligible for hazard mitigation funding and of those, which should take priority. The state then submits the proposals to FEMA, which approves or denies them.
Properties have to be surveyed, titles researched, contracts let.
No quick fix
It’s not a quick solution. Mitigation is typically a 1- to 2-year process, and it sometimes takes longer to close the books on a disaster.
“We’re trying to expedite the process as much as we can,” said Burk, in the state office, adding that after Hurricane Irene in 2011, some acquisitions were wrapped up in 13 months.
In the meantime, some families are able to make their homes livable while they work through the hazard mitigation program. Some stay with family members or in hotels.
From a town or county’s perspective, a drawback to acquiring a home through mitigation is that it becomes government property and no longer generates tax revenue. Local officials hope displaced families will remain in the community and purchase or build new homes to help offset the loss.
Latisha and Cory Beatty hope to stay in the area around Ivanhoe, just not so close to the Black River that a flood could wipe them out again. For now, they’re renting a trailer about a third the size of their former home. They continue to make payments on a house they’ll never be able to live in. That money could be going to pay for Kaleek’s medical expenses.
Latisha Beatty is out of work at the moment, at home with her 5-year-old and Kaleek, who must be home-schooled until his immune system is strong enough for him to rejoin his classmates. Corey works at a chemical plant.
The family’s expenses have been mounting, and the Beattys have a GoFundMe account to help pay their share of Kaleek’s doctor and medication costs. His drugs are expected to cost about $10,000 every three months.
C.R. “Tom” Collins, Pender County’s emergency management director, understands why the Beattys and others don’t want to go back to houses they know could flood again.
“One person told me, ‘For sure, I’m not going back. I elevated after Hurricane Floyd and I’m not going through this again. I want to move out. I’m done.’”
You can help
Latisha and Corey Beatty’s son Kaleek, 11, received a kidney transplant in December, two months after Hurricane Matthew flooded their home in Bladen County. Unable to sell their home or live in it, the family is paying rent and their mortgage payments.
The family is accepting donations to help pay medical expenses at https://www.gofundme.com/a-kidney-for-kaleek.