Politics & Government

‘A crying shame’: Contract problems and inexperience slow Hurricane Matthew relief in NC

More than two years after Hurricane Matthew devastated parts of North Carolina, the state had spent only about 1 percent of the disaster relief money from a $236.5 million federal grant meant to help families and communities as of December, according to a report to legislators delivered Monday.

Republicans in the legislature have faulted Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, for a slow response in distributing disaster relief money.

“It’s a crying shame that it takes us so long to help people in immediate need,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican and one of the leaders of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee. “It’s very frustrating if you’re in a home that’s been devastated.”

Hurricane Matthew in 2016 caused an estimated $4.8 billion in damage and was responsible for more than two dozen deaths in the state, the News & Observer reported.

Laura Hogshead, chief operating officer at the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, told the oversight committee that the state has spent more of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development disaster grant since December, and has now used about 4 percent of the money.

HUD calls North Carolina a “slow spender.” A HUD report on 73 entities receiving disaster grants designed 63 percent as slow spenders.

The state has several pots of hurricane recovery money, including state appropriations and various federal grants. Most money has been distributed in a timely manner, according to the report from the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division.

Assistance from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and HUD after Hurricane Matthew totaled more than $914 million, the report said. The HUD disaster grant can be used for housing, economic development, infrastructure, and a few other needs.

The report focused on several problems with state administration of the HUD disaster grant.

  • State contracts with companies to develop plans, write reports, and evaluate unmet needs did not meet HUD requirements, so the work had to be rebid. Because the companies the state hired initially could not be paid with federal money, they were paid with $3.7 million in state money. The report called that expense “unnecessary.”
  • The state did not have experience with the federal grant and its requirements. The legislature in 2009 started moving away from spending federal Community Development Block Grant money on housing, in favor of spending on economic development and infrastructure, the report said. The legislature eliminated the last housing program in 2013. As a result, the state Department of Commerce lost experts who knew how the HUD grant worked.
  • The state Department of Public Safety, which was responsible for spending the HUD grant money, didn’t have the right experience or enough staff.

The legislature is considering ways to get disaster relief to residents and communities faster. The state set up the Office of Recovery and Resiliency after Hurricane Florence last year. It is allowed to hire up to 30 people for three-year jobs. Legislators on Monday discussed making that office permanent, with staffing levels that would drop between disasters and increase when more people are needed to direct relief efforts.

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper, said in a a text message it’s misleading to call the $3.7 million spend on contracts ‘unnecessary.’ The $3.7 million in “unnecessary state spending,” is part of the report’s title.

In an email, Porter said that the report confirms the state spent disaster funds helping people and communities recover from the storm, and “it’s simply wrong to suggest that this assistance was ‘unnecessary.’ The administration has taken a number of steps to streamline the recovery process, and many of the issues raised in this study have already been addressed,” Porter wrote. We will continue to work to provide timely assistance for families in need while also bringing more long-term federal aid to our state.”

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