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By Thomas Goldsmith

The effort to restore health and welfare in North Carolina counties hit by the devastation of Hurricane Matthew continues to require across-the-board assistance.

In December the state legislature appropriated $200 million in emergency funds. Since the storm, the feds have poured in $82 million in Small Business Administration home loans alone, while faith organizations, other nonprofits and businesses also continue to pitch in.

According to the General Assembly’s disaster relief bill, nearly half of North Carolina’s counties suffered some damage in the wake of the Oct. 8 hurricane. Some 88,000 homes were damaged to the tune of more than $967 million. More than two-thirds of the damage will not be covered by FEMA or private insurance, legislators said.

A client gets advice from staffers at the FEMA-State Disaster Recovery Center in Robeson County in January. ​Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

But, on the ground, discovering which sources can distribute money or other aid in the wake of a disaster can be a complicated task.

More than three months after the storm, Billy Hammond, the mayor of the hard-hit Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, said he was still waiting to hear if help was on its way from the state, from FEMA, from anyone beyond the N.C. Baptist Men’s organization, which had helped some residents strip flood-damaged houses.

“We haven’t heard nothing,” Hammond said. “We’re hoping to hear something anytime.

“We’ve got many needs. What we need is to get the businesses back open so we can get some revenue in the community.”

After a lull during the transition between two governors, money from the legislature’s Disaster Recovery Act of 2016 is starting to flow to counties and municipalities, $66.2 million of it to match FEMA and other federal funds. Among the bill’s additional allocations, with some money included for Western North Carolina areas affected by wildfires:

  • $10 million to the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund,
  • $10 million to the Department of Environmental Quality for infrastructure and cleanup needs and
  • $20 million to the Golden Leaf Foundation to pay local governments to build or repair infrastructure outside the 100-year floodplain, so that homes can be developed there.

“It does take time”

As Hammond noted, Hurricane Matthew flooded out Fair Bluff’s main street and initially closed all of its businesses. Mike Sprayberry, director of the state Division of Emergency Management, pointed out that government resources don’t assist all victims of catastrophic storms at the same level.

UPDATE:

Governor Roy Cooper announced Thursday the state has received more than $198 million in additional federal dolalrs to help families and communities recover from Hurricane Matthew.

Nearly $159 million of the grant funds are specifically earmarked for Robeson, Cumberland, Edgecombe and Wayne counties, which were among the state’s hardest-hit areas during Hurricane Matthew.

The remaining approximately $39 million will go to address disaster recovery in the other 46 disaster-declared counties in North Carolina.

“There’s some expectation that a business, being a for-profit, will have insurance, much like a homeowner,” Sprayberry said. He said that state and federal dollars can supplement what insurance doesn’t cover.

But public entities, like towns and counties, often have to wait.

“To repair a road or a drainage system or a water plant, those are public structures and they are maintained by some governmental jurisdiction, so they are eligible for grants,” Sprayberry said. “Road repair and repair of water system, that involves a reimbursement system, so it does take time.”

Across the region, since the storm and into recent days, government was joined by nonprofits such as the the North Carolina Baptist Men’s disaster relief effort. Members didn’t rely on government funding, but mostly used donated and purchased materials as they helped families repair damaged homes.

“As far as our entire response to Hurricane Matthew, we have spent 18,500 volunteer days,” said Gaylon Moss, disaster relief coordinator for the Baptist Men.

In Elizabethtown in Bladen County last week, FEMA provided counselors on insurance, damage mitigation and benefits, all working from a room in the town library.

At Eddie White’s State Farm insurance agency in Elizabethtown, on the private-sector side, office manager Becky Kelly said she often works with FEMA as she greets people from storm-damaged homes in Bladen and surrounding counties.

Want to see a FEMA counselor?

WHERE: 911 Communications Center at 107 Underwood St., Elizabethtown

WHEN: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 23-27

“We first express our concerns and make sure everybody’s OK,” Kelly said. “I recommend that they check with FEMA, where a lot of times they can qualify for an SBA loan.”

At first, FEMA agents were asking homeowners for proof that they didn’t have flood insurance that would cover their losses. Then the Disaster Recovery Center got so busy — 6,800 visits at the center that’s one county over in Lumberton — that staffers just called insurance agencies like White’s to check.

Wooden pews damaged by Hurricane Matthew wait for disposal outside Lumberton’s Smith Chapel Bible Church of God, one of many buildings in the region undergoing extensive renovation. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

Waters from Matthew irreparably damaged homes belonging to three of the agency’s clients, Kelly said.

“They had to move out,” she said. “You could see the stress in the people’s faces. Thankfully they had somewhere to go.”

FEMA pays for shelter for some

Matthew was the third storm to take a swipe at the Bertie county seat of Windsor this year, following Julia and Hermine, Mayor James Hoggard said. But the town is bouncing back, even if it’s taking a while.

“The attitude of our people has been just great,” Hoggard said, noting that homeowners seem to be having an easier time than business people in getting assistance.

“They allocated $5 million across the state for small businesses,” he said. “We could spend about $2 million in this little bitty town alone.”

Many residents of the 49 North Carolina counties that qualified for disaster relief after Matthew did not have relatives or friends with space to put them up. That’s where government assistance continued to come into play.

Partners Vinston McMillan, 56, and Barbara Campbell, 53, left the FEMA center in Lumberton last week with “no complaints” about the temporary help they’re getting from the government agency, assistance that’s allowing them to stay in a nearby motel.

Like thousands of Lumberton residents, they lost their home — in their case a rented apartment near West Fifth Street — to the rising waters of the Lumbee River after Hurricane Matthew.

Smith Chapel Bible Church of God, like many buildings and homes in Lumberton, is requiring extensive renovation following damage from the nearby Lumbee River in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“We’re used to getting flooded,” McMillan said. “But this time it just kept on rising and kept on rising and kept on rising.”

Both said they’ve experienced depression and continuing respiratory problems since they were evacuated Oct. 9. They hope to return to an apartment and eventually to buy a home.

Mold endangers community church

Less tangible resources that Robeson County residents may need for recovery were also in the process of repair, a trip through previously flooded areas showed.

Not far from where McMillan and Campbell lived off West Fifth, a crew was stripping the insides of Smith Chapel Bible Church of God down to its framing and foundation. Workers at the site said that mold had infested the sheetrock and other material in the church. Only a colorful mural on a wall opposite the entrance gave a sense of the building’s former welcome to its congregation.

Wooden pews that the storm had soaked sat in rows outside the church waiting to be discarded. No one from the church was at the site when a reporter visited and the church’s phone has been disconnected.

WHAT CAN FEMA DO?

Those affected by natural disasters may “be eligible for grants for temporary housing and home repairs, and for other serious disaster-related needs, such as medical and dental expenses or funeral and burial costs,” according to FEMA.

The agency may also refer clients to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“These loans cover losses not fully compensated by insurance or other recoveries and do not duplicate benefits of other agencies or organizations,” the agency’s website says.

FEMA spokesman Mike Wade noted that clients had to register for aid even if they had signed up with the Red Cross or a local church organization. Registration also made them eligible for SBA loans.

“FEMA’s goal is that we want them to stay in their home if at all possible,” Wade said. “We may provide them money for immediate repairs to make their home safe, sanitary and secure. What that means is that if they have water, electricity and the house can be secured and is safe for them to live in with minimal repairs, that’s all we provide. We cannot make a person whole again; we cannot bring their property back to the way it was before.

“That’s why we rely on SBA as our partner. That will help people with their long-term recovery needs through a low-interest loan.”

For more information call FEMA at 800-621-3362

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...