Lawmaker calls for removal of NC hurricane recovery director

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina lawmakers rebuked on Wednesday the state’s disaster recovery director — with one calling for her removal — for the agency’s slow progress amid years-long delays that have left some low-income homeowners in temporary lodging for up to six years after hurricanes Matthew and Florence displaced them.

Gov. Roy Cooper said that even though the recovery agency, which falls under his control, is “not moving fast enough,” he remains confident in its leadership and its most recent plans for improvement.

“I think the plan and the people are in place now to really speed this up,” Cooper told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. One block away, a bipartisan General Assembly committee grilled Laura Hogshead, who has led the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) since 2018.

Hogshead was questioned for hours at a September meeting convened by the Hurricane Response and Recovery committee. Three months later, she returned to legislature as instructed, to present what lawmakers hoped would be a major progress update. But on Wednesday, patience wore thin among top legislators who said they had hoped to see every displaced family housed by Christmas.

“It’s not enough,” Hogshead said, before sharing recent data. “It is substantial progress for the last three months, for 90 days, but it is something to build from.”

NCORR has helped house 100 families in the last three months — 76 through completed construction projects and 24 by providing checks to families that opted for reimbursements for their out-of-pocket home repairs.

“I’m extremely disappointed in that number,” said Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican. “I don’t have to tell you, that’s terrible. I drive around my district and go to those homes that say ‘under construction’ and nothing’s going on.”

North Carolina’s legislature created NCORR in 2018, in part to distribute what became $778 million in federal recovery funds awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hurricane Matthew in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2020.

But lawmakers, such as Republican Sen. Danny Britt of Robeson County, raised concerns that the agency may not complete many of its projects before federal funding expires. Under a government mandate, federal funds allocated for the recovery must be spent by June 2026.

“You should resign from your position. But if you were in the private sector you would’ve been fired a long time ago,” Britt told Hogshead as some displaced homeowners in the audience cheered. “Our time’s going to be up on this money if we keep waiting as you continue to fail.”

Hogshead, who did not address the call for her dismissal, said the agency has awarded nearly 300 projects to general contractors in the last six months after labor shortages and supply chain issues slowed construction during the pandemic. Now that these issues have largely subsided, she said, there are no more “extraneous excuses.”

Prior to program updates in June, the agency was completing an average of five homes per month. At the end of November, the monthly average had jumped to 17.

Co-chair Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and head budget writer, echoed Britt’s concerns and warned that he will look to remove Hogshead if NCORR cannot demonstrate improvements, such as finalizing permanent housing placements and completing construction projects faster.

“There has got to be some improvement in this program immediately, or I’m going to use what power I have to redirect the funds to someone who can get the job done,” Jackson said.

Lesley Wiseman Albritton, managing attorney of natural disaster recovery cases for the nonprofit law firm Legal Aid of North Carolina, said she has noticed some improvements from NCORR since the September hearing, but certain delays persist.

Since 2019, Legal Aid has represented more than 650 low-income North Carolinians in the hurricane recovery program, and 99 of their cases have been resolved. More than a hundred clients are still waiting on award determinations from NCORR that would allow them to proceed with repairs or return to their homes from motels or other temporary accommodations. Some have been waiting for several years.

As delays persist, Albritton said, much of Legal Aid’s own grant funding for cases from earlier storms has expired.

“We find it at times to be a frustrating relationship when we can’t get the progress that we want for our clients,” she said of NCORR. “I think we’ve greatly improved the communication, but I don’t know that the communication always moves the ball forward for our clients.”

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Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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