This week on Wednesday, December 14, 2022, the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery held a hearing to receive updates on any and all changes or progress that had been made since their September 14, 2022 hearing where only 25% of ReBuild NC’s 4000+ applicants had their home repairs or rebuilds completed, four years after Hurricane Florence made landfall in NC.
Legislative Hearing held to determine progress on Hurricane Recovery efforts
The subcommittee invited three people to testify: Lesley Albritton, Managing Attorney for the Disaster Relief Project at Legal Aid of North Carolina and NCHC Board Member; Laura Hogshead, the Chief Operating Officer of North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR); and Eddie M. Buffaloe, Jr, the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS). They were asked to testify regarding several of the following areas:
- Evaluation of experiences with NCORR and recommendations for improvement;
- The progress and completion of homes since September 14, 2022;
- Policy changes, process improvements, and accountability measures implemented by ReBuild NC to facilitate faster recovery efforts;
- Steps taken by DPS and their plan to increase program responsiveness and accountability within NCORR.
Testimonies cite improvement despite continued issues and delays
Lesley Alrbitton, Managing Attorney for the Disaster Relief Project at Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) testified about her team’s experiences with NCORR’s ReBuild NC Program since February 2019 and since September 14, 2022. The Disaster Relief project is currently working with an estimated 178 clients in various steps of the ReBuild NC process. Although they have observed improvements such as an increase in the rate of appeals and increased flexibility in TRA assistance, several issues remain such as:
- Seventy-Five (75) clients were assigned new case managers since September, forty-six (46) were not informed of the new assignment.
- They have seen no “Notices to Proceed” since September for their clients, and only two demolitions have occurred since the last hearing.
- Despite increased TRA flexibility, rental payments are still sometimes delayed.
In her letter to the Subcommittee, Albritton makes several recommendations based on their issues with the ReBuild NC program:
- Establish a mobile-friendly, online portal for applicants that is updated regularly by ReBuild NC staff so that all information relevant to the status of an applicant’s file is accessible, and so applicants can communicate with case managers and staff.
- Cease the process of involuntarily withdrawing applicants until communication issues within ReBuild NC are addressed.
- Provide qualified, paid translators and interpreters for all applicants who need them as well as a clear policy for how to request and access these translation services.
- Adopt the new FEMA policy for owners of heir properties.
- Demonstrate prioritization of low-to-moderate income applicants.
- Change TRA payments to occur at the first of the month instead of at the end of the month, and include a clear policy for emergency TRA that includes eligibility criteria.
- Provide clear timelines from start to finish and communicate all delays and the resulting impact on the overall timeline for the applicant in writing.
- Utilize liquidated damages where appropriate to avoid construction delays.
- Applicants that were once deemed ineligible for assistance due to older policies that have been changed should be given the opportunity to reapply.
Legislators question data on ReBuild NC “progress” since September 14
During NCORR Chief Operating Officer Laura Hogshead’s testimony, several data points regarding improved output were shared:
- There has been a 242% increase in production since September 14, 2022;
- Prior to June the monthly average completion rate was 5 homes, and at the end of November the average was 17.
- 277 projects have successfully bid in the last 90 days;
- 100 families have been housed in the last 89 days;
Senator Jim Perry (R-D7) of Lenoir and Wayne County, highlighted that the program average needs to be at least at 60 homes a month, and that output is still at less than half of what it needs to be to finish in time for spending deadlines.
Sen. Perry also asked for clarification on the 277 projects that are in procurement and considered in construction (see table below), Hogshead confirmed and clarified that many of projects in construction and procurement have not hit the ground yet and are still in the permitting phase. Hogshead displayed the following table during her presentation to demonstrate progress of cases throughout their 8 step process since September 14th.
Hogshead admitted that the existing pace of the program was unacceptable, but stated that it was “trending in the right direction” and is not only sustainable but is expected to continue to increase.
Subcommittee calls for Accountability
Questions regarding accountability not only for Hogshead and ReBuild NC staff but of general contractors with known and consistent delays emerged as the central themes throughout the hearing. Sen. Brent Jackson (R-D10) commented that he and other members visited 60 homes, and only saw 1 general contractor during their visit doing work.
Senator Danny Britt (R-D13) asked about the 523 families waiting for modular homes from one vendor who has had their contract extended at least two times and received additional funding even though in August of 2022 they’d only provided 6 homes. Hogshead responded that the vendor in question was one of two that responded to the bid and the lowest responsive bidder. The issue cited was the modular home production had slowed down and is only now beginning to pick up. Additionally, several of the projects in the construction phase of the process are stalled in the permitting and inspections processes across the local communities they are in. The volume of the ReBuild NC cases alone, not to mention the ongoing demands existing outside of disaster recovery, was mentioned several times as part of why contractors are unable to move as quickly as desired.
NCORR will begin to put contractors on notice, but has yet to to use the liquidated damage assessment tool they have included in all contracts. Several members advocated for the use of this tool and asked why it had not been used. Ultimately, Hogshead responded that when weighing the costs of pursuing liquidated damages and making program changes to house those impacted by the disaster, the latter was consistently chosen. Instead of using this tool, NCORR has used a system of vendor complaint letters that lower the scores of general contractors and affect their future ability to successfully bid for projects with the program.
Several members of the subcommittee expressed their concern and disappointment with the performance of contractors and the lack of consequences levied for vendors who have kept families waiting for two years in some cases.
Committee Members and DPS Leadership push for more from NCORR
Secretary of DPS Eddie M. Buffaloe, Jr., who has been in the position a little over a year, acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the failures of the ReBuild NC program. A northeastern North Carolina native, Buffaloe said this was not only a professional priority for him but a personal one, and that moving forward, he has three main priorities:
- Get more people into Step 8 – the completion phase of their home;
- Get more people out of long-term temporary housing and prioritize getting them home as soon as possible; and
- Re-earning the trust of the families they serve by improving constituent service.
When asked what the general assembly could do to help or make these changes happen faster, Secretary Buffaloe and Laura Hogshead both referred to a list of legislative recommendations they are developing that they will present to the committee in the new year. Members of the subcommittee recommended that he take even more steps to directly oversee Hogshead and the ReBuild NC program changes. In the closing minutes of the almost five hour hearing, Sen. Brent Jackson (R-D10) told the crowd of impacted families in the auditorium “You have been failed,” and reminded everyone that “these two hurricanes will not be our last”.
The subcommittee intends to reconvene on March 15, 2023. To view the hearing and review materials from the meeting, including public comments click here.