Boats are stacked up on each other in a marina in New Bern, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. Steve Helber | AP Photo

NC - Audit: For a hurricane five years ago, there is $72M people need, can't get

(The Center Square) – A recent state audit shows nearly $72 million in Hurricane Florence recovery money remains unspent, despite lingering unmet needs in counties hardest hit by the 2018 storm.

“You still have people who are out of their home, they’re not living where they were before the hurricane,” Craven County Manager Jack Veit told The Center Square. “You still have infrastructure issues, too. From a county standpoint, we still have connectivity issues with our water system.”

There’s also ongoing work to flood-proof the county courthouse and other projects delayed by funding processes, negotiations with federal agencies, and COVID-19.

“Would additional money help? Sure it would,” he said, noting 4,600 homes were damaged by Florence in 2018. “We’re still working on these projects.”

It’s a similar situation in Pamlico County, where manager Tim Buck told The Center Square “there’s still some basic repairs that are needed, like roofs and those kinds of issues.”

With one program, more than 100 applied for grants to elevate their homes, though funding limited help to about 50.

“There is still quite a bit of need there,” Buck said. “We still have a lot of folks who live in the flood plain.”

Officials with Pamlico’s local disaster recovery coalition have worked with the Federal Emergency Management Association to address some of the issues, but there’s been far less communication with state officials at the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which coordinates state efforts to help impacted homeowners, he said.

The ongoing struggles come as a recent state auditor’s report shows $71.9 million out of $942.4 million allocated by the General Assembly in 2018 to the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund remained unspent as of June 30. The audit does not include federal funding or other state funds for recovery.

The report found several agencies either neglected to spend the funds or sent them back.

Examples include the Department of Agriculture, which had not requested the $34 million it was allocated, with only $8.2 million of the total obligated to address critical drainage networks and provide state match to local sponsors.

The North Carolina Community College System returned $478,356 of $2.1 million allocated “because it was not needed due to higher-than-expected enrollment revenue.” Another $2.9 million allocated to the Department of Public Instruction wasn’t used because other funds were spent to repair school facilities and replace school food equipment.

The $1.9 million allocated to the UNC System also went unused; the system relied on other funds for facility repairs and renovations.

The Department of Public Safety “has not requested $7.8 million allocated for the state match related to Federal Emergency Management Agency grants because the funds are contingent upon federal reimbursement and the associated federal expenditures have not yet been expended,” auditors wrote.

“Additionally, DPS has not requested $11.8 million allocated for disaster housing recovery support for homeowners. According to DPS, these funds will be used to provide gap payments for homeowners or buy homes in flood-prone areas from homeowners who do not qualify for federal program assistance. However, this amount continues to remain unobligated or spent as of June 30, 2023.”

The audit comes amid widespread criticism of the state office of recovery’s ReBuild NC program, from both lawmakers and the public, on the slow pace of work to repair and construct thousands of homes damaged by Florence. Recent reports have highlighted nearly $30 million spent to house displaced homeowners still stranded in motels, apartments, campers and their damaged homes, while ReBuild NC has paid dozens of top officials more than $100,000 a year to oversee the program.

Florence came ashore the morning of Sept. 14, 2018, near Wrightsville Beach, just 23 months after Hurricane Matthew had devastated the same southeastern counties. Florence’s unique quirk was parking between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, over the Atlantic Ocean for about three days, moving slower than people walk. She picked up moisture that was eventually dumped on the coastal plains.

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