CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper conceded that it is taking too long to get help to homeowners whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Matthew in response to questions from WBTV at a press conference Thursday.
Specifically, WBTV wanted to know why state and federal money earmarked to help rebuild and replace homes damaged by the 2016 storm still had not been spent, despite assurances from disaster recovery officials in April that money would be flowing by now.
In mid-April, Nick Burk with the North Carolina Emergency Management Office told the House Select Committee on Disaster Recovery that money from the state Disaster Recovery Act of 2017 and funds from a federal Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery would start to be spent in May and June.
Specifically, Burk said construction to repair homes using DRA '17 funds would start by May 1; that reimbursements using CDBG-DR money would begin by May 1; and repairs funded by CDBG-DR money would begin June 30.
But none of that has happened.
One family was reimbursed for repair costs using CDBG-DR money in late-April but that was a one-time exemption granted by the US Department of Housing and Urban Developmen, the agency that administers CDBG-DR grants, because the home was in an area that did not require an environmental impact assessment.
In fact, North Carolina still has yet to re-submit environmental impact assessments for any of the affected counties since its first submission was rejected in January.
A NCEM spokeswoman confirmed the assessments for four counties hit by Hurricane Matthew are ongoing.
The assessments must be completed, submitted to and approved by HUD before any CDBG-DR can be released for wider distribution.
The NCEM spokeswoman did not provide a timeline to WBTV as to when the impact assessments in the first four counties would be complete and did not address whether the process would still allow for construction activity to start by June 30, as promised.
Officials with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the agency that houses NCEM, have refused repeated requests for an interview to explain why the state has still not spent the $237 million CDBG-DR grant allocated to the state last year.
By contract, South Carolina, which received its CDBG-DR funding at the same time as North Carolina, has issued more than 300 award letters and has put dozens of families back in homes.
"They need to go fast in making sure that people get individual assistance, either to buy out their home or to reimburse them for the repairs they've made or to construct homes and elevate them," Cooper said in response to a question from WBTV on Thursday.
"That needs to go faster," he said. "I have been pushing them. I believe they are on the right track and they are going to continue to work hard to make sure that money gets out the door and make sure these contracts are let."
North Carolina State Representative Brendan Jones (R-Columbus) who represents the town of Fair Bluff, one of the hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew, was critical of the Cooper Administration's continued inaction.
"The City of Fair Bluff looks pretty much the same today as it did 18 months ago," Jones said. "Empty businesses, empty homes, debris everywhere."
Similarly, House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), whose district was also hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, said he and his legislative colleagues have had trouble getting information from disaster recovery officials about why it is taking so long to disburse aid money.
"They'll say 'well, let us get the information and get back to you' and weeks drag on; sometimes months," Bell said.
Bell, who chairs the Disaster Recovery Committee, said he is looking for ways to help get families in his district and elsewhere back in their homes.
"It's just time to stop playing games. These are real people with real lives and real situations that are affected every day," Bell said. "This is a real-life situation and I'm just appalled that it hasn't been solved."
For his part, Cooper did not dispute that more needs to be done to speed up disaster recovery.
"I'm not going to argue with you that things need to move faster and things need to be pushed forward," Cooper said on Thursday.