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For Florence victims, there’s no place like home — even if the repairs are temporary

Hurricane Florence devastated the Carolinas and the numbers show it

Hurricane Florence crushed rainfall and river flooding records in the Carolinas.
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Hurricane Florence crushed rainfall and river flooding records in the Carolinas.

Facing a severe housing shortage that has left Hurricane Florence survivors living in hotels or crashing with friends and relatives, North Carolina will begin using a new FEMA program by December to make temporary, basic repairs so some residents can move home.

The STEP program — Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power — was launched after Hurricane Sandy left thousands of homes and apartments unlivable in New Jersey and New York in October 2012. Lacking available housing for storm victims to move into, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began paying for essential repairs that could makes homes “safe, sanitary and secure,” meeting the agency’s minimum standards.

STEP was also used in Texas and Louisiana after hurricanes hit those states.

Experts say the program amounts to having people shelter in place. While it can’t restore a home to its pre-hurricane comfort level, it can get people back into familiar surroundings while they wait for repairs to be finished.

“It’s not going to make the house complete,” said Joe Stanton, who oversees disaster assistance programs as assistant director of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management. “It’s not designed to be extravagant.”

But when people are recovering from a disaster, it can help to be back among neighbors and close to jobs, the grocery store, doctors, church and other institutions that people are accustomed to.

The state anticipates making temporary repairs to as many as 1,000 homes through the program. Statewide, owners have claimed at least 95,000 homes were damaged by the September storm.

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From left, Larry High, executive director Richard Brunson and Bill Martin of the NC Baptist Men go over plans to repair a home damaged by flooding from Hurricane Florence Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 in Lumberton. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

For the past few weeks, the state has been working with the N.C. Baptists on Mission to develop a model for how STEP will work in North Carolina. Bill Martin, coordinator of the Baptist rebuilding effort after Florence, has been running the numbers for different kinds of repairs on a house the group has been rebuilding on Church Street in Lumberton.

The small brick home, owned by a woman in her late 70s or early 80s, Martin said, was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Volunteers had nearly finished rebuilding it when it was flooded again by Florence.

The water was less than a foot deep, but it was enough to ruin the flooring the group had installed all over the house, along with kitchen and bathroom cabinetry and the drywall from the floor to about 18 inches above it.

Martin said the group will make minimum repairs to make the house safe for the owner to move back in, and then will come back and finish the house later.

“She’s fine with it,” Martin said of the temporary fixes, which include one kitchen cabinet and a small amount of work space. For now, floors will be sheathed in wood but not tiled or carpeted.

“She just wants to get back in her house.”

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Chip McGuirt of the NC Baptist Men cuts drywall to repair a home damaged by flooding from Hurricane Florence Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018 in Lumberton. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com@newsobser

Stanton said the state and FEMA hope to work out the final details by late November. But generally, the program will work like this:

It will be offered to homeowners in 12 of the 34 N.C. counties declared disasters as a result of Hurricane Florence. They are: Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Pender and Robeson.

STEP is aimed at homes that received relatively little damage from the storm: generally, less than a foot of water inside, for example. The most that would be spent on temporary repairs for any one home would be about $17,000.

To be eligible, homeowners must register with FEMA at disasterassistance.gov, by calling 800-621-3361 or by visiting a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. Homeowners must agree to the terms of the program, which include that they will no longer be eligible to stay in FEMA travel trailers or manufactured homes, or for FEMA-paid hotel rooms.

Repairs estimated at about $8,000 or less will be made by a nonprofit such as the N.C. Baptists on Mission, which uses volunteer labor to rebuild disaster-damaged homes. Materials would be paid for by the program. Homeowners using nonprofits can enter into an agreement in which the volunteers will later return to finish the repairs.

Repairs estimated at $8,000 to about $17,000 will be made by contractors who will compete for the work.

STEP will likely operate for six months and may be extended by FEMA depending on the need.

STEP operates as a federal reimbursement program. The state pays for the repairs and applies to FEMA for reimbursement of 75 percent of the cost.

Repairs are considered temporary and partial. Electrical and plumbing systems are made safe and operational. The home will have a functional kitchen, with basic appliances and a working sink, but instead of a full complement of cabinets, the kitchen would have a base cabinet under the sink and a small food preparation surface. Bathrooms are made functional and private. Exterior doors, windows and roof are made watertight and safe.

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