Opinion

NC mobile home contractors say they were left out of FEMA contracts

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.

David Mann of Goldsboro has scrambled around the country to provide temporary housing after hurricanes, but when Hurricane Florence came to his doorstep, he didn’t get a bit of work.

He later found out why. Before Florence hit, FEMA already had awarded the prime contract for the so-called “haul-and-install” work of bringing in housing to a company based in Athens, Ga. — MLU Services Inc. Mann’s company, Hamvis Properties, and at least two other haul-and-install companies in Eastern North Carolina were unable to offer their own proposals.

“This was a situation where it’s really close and we didn’t get a chance to bid on it,” Mann said.

Leroy Lawrence of Lawrence Mobile Home Services in Goldsboro, said, “I truly believe we should have gotten an opportunity. We make the money in North Carolina and spend it in North Carolina. Everybody benefits.”

The companies’ experience raises question about how much of the federal emergency relief spending after Florence — now more than $1 billion — is going to local companies and workers. The federal Stafford Act requires that local companies should be preferred when the federal government awards disaster recovery contracts.

The local companies are especially irked because they got FEMA work after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and their performance was graded well.

State emergency management officials said they have not heard complaints from other state companies and contractors about how FEMA is awarding contracts in Eastern North Carolina.

FEMA spokeswoman Yvonne Smith said the prime contract was awarded to MLU Services in accordance with the Post-Katrina Reform Act of 2006 and FEMA policies, which call for the hiring of a prime contractor in advance of disasters in order to speed the housing response.

Mann questioned whether the law was properly applied. He said the pre-approved general contractor is intended for very large disasters, where local workers are unable to fully respond. But he said Florence was on a scale the local companies could handle and, after Hurricane Matthew, locals had experience with hurricane recovery work and the FEMA process.

Steve Stone, owner of Steve Stone Mobile Home Transport in Lumberton, said his experience after Hurricane Florence was “totally different” than after Matthew. “This time, someone from down South comes in and they get the whole enchilada,” he said.

After Florence, 600 to 650 temporary housing units have been installed, according to Eric Ulm, a senior project manager for MLU Services. He declined to provide the value of the contract. FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for it.

Mann said the price for transporting and installing a mobile home would be about $18,000 to $20,000. Doing the same for a travel trailer would cost about $2,500, he said. Lawrence estimated that the overall FEMA contract for temporary housing after Florence would be $5 million to $8 million.

Awarding the contracts locally benefits more than the mobile home companies. The money also goes to local electricians, plumbers and others who then would spend their earnings in the recovering area.

“The big contractors bring their help in from others states and they take their money back to other states,” Stone said.

Ulm said, “We have a core group of contractors who follow us because they’re good and we know their work.” But he said local workers have also been hired. FEMA said MLU hired 10 local subcontractors who employed more than 45 people.

Ulm said North Carolina contractors who felt left out should have called him. Mann said he did fill out a questionnaire for MLU and did not get a response.

“Two or three months (after Florence) there was no haul-and-install work for us,” he said. “This was something right in our backyard and our subs, plumbers and electricians, didn’t have an opportunity to participate.”

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