Lawmakers have a lot of questions, get few answers about hurricane recovery

NC yet to spend federal hurricane relief
Updated: Apr. 16, 2018 at 7:43 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives spent more than an hour firing questions at state leaders responsible for ensuring residents impacted by Hurricane Matthew recover from the storm.

Heavy flooding from Matthew devastated portions of eastern North Carolina after making landfall in mid-October 2016.

Now, more than 18 months after the storm hit, thousands of residents are still without homes, have been promised government help but have no idea when that help will come.

WBTV first reported last fall that North Carolina lagged South Carolina in disaster recovery. Our story was based on a three-day trip up the coast from Georgia to North Carolina to see the impacts of Matthew and hear stories of recovery.

At the time, North Carolina leaders said the state was on pace with South Carolina in handing out money from a community development block grant for disaster recovery, known as CDBG-DR, which is administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The grant is intended to help low-income residents whose homes were damaged by a storm.

North Carolina was awarded $236 million in September 2017; the time South Carolina was also awarded money.

Now, more than seven months later, South Carolina disaster recovery officials have moved more than 50 families back into homes.

Previous: NC has spent $0 of $200 million grant to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Matthew, report says

On Monday, a representative from the North Carolina Emergency Management office said his team hoped to make its first home repair by June 1.

Nick Burk, Assistant Director of Emergency Management for Resiliency, told lawmakers his office had deployed strike teams to help speed assistance to the impacted areas.

But as he defended the efforts of his team to lawmakers, he was also forced to acknowledge that his staff had yet to submit required assessments to HUD that must be approved before any CDBG-DR money can be awarded.

Burk said the state had submitted environmental impact assessments for just four counties where CDBG-DR funds would be spent - Wayne, Edgecombe, Cumberland and Robeson - but had yet to submit the required assessments for other impacted counties.

When asked whether HUD had approved the assessments for those counties, Burk dodged answering the question.

Multiple sources tell WBTV that the state's environmental impact assessment for the four counties was rejected by HUD in January and the state has yet to re-submit revised versions.

Burk repeatedly pointed to the eight-step process required for approving CDBG-DR applicants, saying just 500 of the more than 1,500 families seeking assistance had made it past the first step.

Previous: NC agency tweets response to WBTV investigation but still won't answer questions

The frustration from lawmakers on the committee - both Republicans and Democrats - was palpable as Burk's presentation went on.

Representative Brenden Jones (R-Bladen) asked Burk who inside state government was ultimately responsible for overseeing hurricane recovery.

Burk responded that NC Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry was ultimately responsible for administering the CDBG-DR funds.

"So we're to blame Mike Sprayberry for this?" Jones asked.

Representative Charles Graham (D-Robeson) was equally frustrated.

"Where's the funds at? Who's controlling the funds? Who controls disbursement?" Graham asked.

Graham also encouraged Burk and NCEM to take a state-led approach, similar to what South Carolina has done.

"We don't need five or six different models," Graham said. "We need to find one model that works."

Two lawmakers - Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) and Rep. John Bell (R-Waye) - cited WBTV's investigation last week that found NC lagged SC in spending its CDBG-DR money.

"This is real life, you have left these people in limbo for 18 months with no answer," Bell told Burk.

Related: NC General Assembly police stop WBTV reporter trying to ask questions

Representative Garland Pierce (D-Robeson) told Burke he felt like he was lying to his constituents every time he gave them an answer about the pace of recovery because the answers he was relaying from the state never proved to be true.

After the committee hearing, Burk refused to answer questions from a WBTV reporter, marking the second DPS agency in as many months to refuse a WBTV reporter's question.

As a WBTV crew tried to ask questions of Burk, a reporter and photographer were stopped by three members of the North Carolina General Police Department, who said they were investigating reports of harassment.

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