GOLDSBORO, N.C. (WBTV) - It didn't take Goldsboro Mayor Chuck Allen long to find houses still condemned and vacant as he drove through a neighborhood last week that was hit hard by flash floods in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.
The houses stand out from an otherwise quiet, unremarkable street. Many of the homes, which are still empty, have signs hanging on the front announcing the structure is condemned in big, block letters. Others still bear neon orange symbols spray painted on the doors; markings left behind by search and rescue crews clearing homes when the flood struck last October.
"Who this hit was the working class," Allen said. "Really, poor people or lower income people for the most part."
Now, still some seven months since the storm, Allen said roughly 50 Goldsboro residents are still living in hotels. Others, Allen said, are still living with family or have moved away.
"It was just devastation. We lost over 300 homes, displaced all kinds of our citizens. Business were displaced. It was pretty devastating times," Allen said.
Local communities still in need of relief money
Allen said his city is a long way from being rebuilt to how it was before the flood waters rose – both physically and financially. Allen said it's going to take a lot of money to restore his community, which means he and other local leaders are dependent on state and federal funding.
"I'm sure if you went to Kinston, Greenville, Fayetteville, Lumberton, I think you could get the same answer everywhere," Allen said, referring to other cities in eastern North Carolina hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. "It all comes back to the money."
For instance, Allen explained, the City of Goldsboro is still waiting to be repaid $3 million for costs it incurred associated with the emergency response in the immediate aftermath of the floods.
"Three million is a lot of money to us out of our budget," Allen said.
But Allen said he has yet to see any of the $200 million in tax dollars appropriated by lawmakers during a special session for disaster relief held last December.
"If we have, I don't know it," Allen said. "I'm not going to tell you we haven't but, to my knowledge, I don't think much of the state money has been spent yet. I do know that the new governor, Governor Cooper, and his secretary (of public safety) were here and they said, you know, 'we're going to work on getting the program together.' That's been a few months ago."
Lawmakers also question use of state recovery funds
It's not just local leaders who have questions about how local hurricane relief funds are being spent. Some lawmakers in Raleigh say they've been left in the dark, too.
North Carolina House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), who lives in and represents Goldsboro in the general assembly, said he's been frustrated by the slow pace of recovery efforts and the lack of information from those administering the money.
"We knew that this was going to be a long process, I was just hoping the funding would get there a little quicker than it is," Bell said in an interview with WBTV.
At the time of WBTV's interview with Bell last week, he said he and other members of the House leadership had no details of how the $200 million appropriated for disaster recovery had been spent, if it had been spent at all.
"We've reached out through the Speaker's Office to get a cash flow report to find out where the funding's been," Bell said. "As of today—just a few minutes ago before you and I sat down—we have yet to receive that."
The Office of State Budget and Management issued a report on June 1 detailing how the state hurricane relief money had been spent through the end of April.
The summary showed that of the $200 million appropriated by state lawmakers, roughly half had been either spent or encumbered, meaning the money has been committed to a specific purpose but the check hasn't been cashed yet.
Emergency management director defends pace of recovery work
Mike Sprayberry, the director of North Carolina Emergency Management, said he thinks the fact that his agency has been able to spend roughly $100 million in five months.
"If you've been affected by a disaster, there's no way the programs are going to be fast enough for you," Sprayberry said in response to a question about the pace of recovery efforts.
"It's a balancing act between speed and being responsible and making sure that you're managing the dollars responsibly," Sprayberry explained.
In addition to the $200 million in state disaster appropriations, Sprayberry's agency is also managing the distribution of many state and federal grants, which Congressman Robert Pittenger (R-9th) estimates to already total $1 billion.
Pittenger and other members of North Carolina's congressional delegation in Washington have defended their efforts in securing federal money for storm relief in recent weeks, amid attacks from Governor Roy Cooper.
Cooper has criticized a decision from federal officials to deny a new request from North Carolina for more relief money that totaled nearly $1 billion. Instead, the federal government agreed to allocate roughly $6 million.
"Families across eastern North Carolina need help to rebuild and recover, and it is an incredible failure by the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders to turn their backs," Cooper said in a statement in response to the federal government's decision in early May.
"Matthew was a historic storm and we are still working every day to help families return home and rebuild their communities," Cooper said. "North Carolinians affected by this storm cannot be ignored by the Trump Administration and Congressional leadership, and I will continue to work with our Congressional delegation to get North Carolina residents affected by the storm the help they deserve."
Among the reasons federal appropriators have been reluctant to approve more funding, WBTV has learned, is the fact that at least $100 million in state money is still sitting in the bank unused.
Sprayberry said the State Office of Budget and Management has been providing monthly reports on how the state recovery money is being spent to lawmakers. But when pressed by WBTV on why, then, leadership in both the state house and senate said they had few details on how the money was being spent, conceded more could be done to keep lawmakers up to speed.
"We need to do, probably, a better job of ensuring they do know the money is getting out there," Sprayberry said.