Recovery

Director Defends North Carolina's Slow Hurricane Relief: 'We're Learning'

Federal lawmakers question why more than $200 million in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief funds haven’t found their way to flood victims.

by Greg Barnes, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. / July 26, 2018
AP/Casey Mozingo

(TNS) - North Carolina's emergency management director acknowledged Wednesday that getting federal funding to Hurricane Matthew victims who need to repair or rebuild their homes has been a slow and tedious process.

But Mike Sprayberry defends the job he and his staff have done, despite mounting criticism from state and federal lawmakers who question why more than $200 million in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief funds haven’t found their way to flood victims.

“It has taken us awhile but we continue to focus on providing the implementation of the program to disaster survivors as quickly as possible,” said Sprayberry, whose department is responsible for disbursing $404 million in block grants that have been awarded to North Carolina. Of that amount, $168 million remains tied up with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On Monday, state House Speaker Tim Moore reauthorized the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief to investigate the delays following news that the state had missed a self-imposed deadline to deliver millions of dollars to hurricane victims.

Several weeks earlier, on May 25, members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation sent Gov. Roy Cooper a letter asking why the state still controls most of the block grant funding nearly two years after the hurricane dumped more than 12 inches of rain and displaced about 3,765 people in eastern North Carolina.

The first allocation of block grant funds — $236 million — was awarded by HUD in January 2017, about three months after the hurricane. Another $37 million was released to the state four months later.

The money is supposed to be used by people who didn’t have homeowners or flood insurance, or didn't qualify for other forms of disaster assistance. Some of the money will be used to buy homes that can’t be repaired or rebuilt.

But almost all of the money remains unused.

Sprayberry noted that Hurricane Matthew was the biggest natural disaster to hit North Carolina in terms of monetary damage. He also noted that this was the first time the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management has been tasked with coordinating and disbursing disaster relief funding. Previously, it had been the responsibility of the N.C. Department of Commerce.

“It’s kind of like uncharted waters for us,” Sprayberry said. “We’re learning.”

Navigating through the federal rules and regulations that go with the block grant funding is inherently time-consuming, he said. The process starts with preparing a state action plan followed by an environmental review of each of the affected counties. The reviews have to be approved by HUD. Then there is an eight-step process to determine the eligibility of applicants, as well as an assessment of their damages.

Sprayberry said all steps were completed about two weeks ago for Robeson County, where hurricane victims should soon begin receiving damage reimbursements or home repairs.

“In the next few days, you’re really going to start seeing some significant output,” he said.

Sprayberry said the three other hardest-hit counties, Cumberland, Edgecombe and Wayne, should start getting the funding by mid- to late August. Sprayberry acknowledged the process for Robeson County was completed first partly because that county did its own environmental review.

The city of Fayetteville qualifies for more than $15 million in initial funding; Cumberland County, nearly $8 million. Robeson County is expected to get nearly $70 million when all of the money has been doled out.

Sprayberry took exception to lawmakers’ contention that the state is in jeopardy of losing some of the block grant money because of the length of time it is taking to disburse. That is not the case, he said.

Sprayberry further defended his division by noting that it has worked with federal, state and local officials to allocate more than $739 million since the hurricane, not counting $628 million to help families and small businesses and to pay for public infrastructure projects.

The division has also allocated $82 million in hazard mitigation grant funds to local governments to elevate, reconstruct or buy 641 damaged homes. In Cumberland County, more than $56 million has gone to recovery programs for homeowners, businesses and public projects.

“All these programs just don’t spring up and then it’s off to the races,” Sprayberry said.

Fayetteville and Cumberland County officials are among those who have criticized the state for the time it’s taken to distribute the Community Development Block Grant money.

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at gbarnes@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3525.

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