A Legacy of Disaster
Tomorrow, an oversight group of the General Assembly will meet for the third time in the last six months to continue its inquiries into the state bureaucracy’s response to the aftermath of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina on October 7, 2016, killing 26 people and causing $1.6 billion in damages; Hurricane Florence hit the state on September 14, 2018, directly killing 15 and causing $17 billion in damages.
The Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations’ Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery is expected to hear updates from Laura Hogshead, Director of the North Carolina Office of Recovery & Resiliency (ReBuild NC) and Richard Trumper, Senior Advisor for Disaster Recovery at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS).
Ms. Hogshead and Mr. Trumper have appeared before the subcommittee in the past — Hogshead both on September 14 and December 14, 2022 (see video above) and Trumper on September 14 in his former role as head of disaster recovery at the state’s Office of Management & Budget. Mr. Trumper’s appointment to NCDPS came in January of this year after systemic mismanagement at ReBuild NC came to light and the subsequent resignation of Ivan Duncan, ReBuild NC’s one-time Chief Program Delivery Officer. Mr. Duncan also appeared before the committee on September 14 with Ms. Hogshead.
Joining Ms. Hogshead at the oversight committee’s last hearing on December 14 were Lesley Wiseman Albritton of Legal Aid of North Carolina and Eddie Buffaloe, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Legal Aid of North Carolina is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people and Ms. Albritton heads up the group’s disaster relief program. One may read Ms. Albritton’s written testimony here and Secretary Buffaloe’s testimony here. Each witness was given roughly an hour to speak.
While all three witnesses at the subcommittee’s December 14 meeting responded to questions, the most critical examination by members of the subcommittee was reserved for Ms. Hogshead (her testimony begins at the 1:01:42 mark).
Ms. Hogshead reported that Rebuild NC went from completing five homes a month in January of 2022 to 17 per month as of her appearance last December. It is estimated that the Rebuild NC program would need to complete 60 homes a month before the funding for Hurricane Matthew runs out in 2025.
Subcommittee Chairman Senator Brent Jackson was not happy with the progress of improvements at the agency. “As you well know,” said Senator Jackson to Ms. Hogshead, “commission staff performs random site visits to 60 homes in the following counties: Bertie, Columbus, Craven, Beaufort, Edgecombe, Greene, Lenoir, Pitt, Robeson, Sampson, Wayne, and Wilson Counties. And did you know — that out of the 60 homes they visited — do you know how many times they encountered contractors actively working on the home?” Ms. Hogshead indicated that she did not.
“Once. Only once out of 60 homes,” replied Senator Jackson to audible gasps from the audience. “Director Hogshead, this is unacceptable — by any stretch of the imagination, this is unacceptable…The lack of urgency that has been performed since all this began, in trying to get these people back in their homes at the slow rate that has been going on is totally unacceptable … there has got to be some improvement made in this program – immediately – or I’ll use my power to redirect the funds to someone that can get the job done,” he said.
Senator Danny Britt was a bit more succinct. “You’ve failed as a director,” charged Brett. “If you were in the private sector, you would have been fired a long time ago.” (Editor’s note: According to a publicy-accessible database on state government salaries from the Raleigh News & Observer, Ms. Hogshead makes $144,896 per year.)
The subcommittee’s December 14 meeting came the day after NBC Raleigh affiliate WRAL aired “Aftermath: North Carolina Hurricane Victims Left Behind,” a devastating 30-minute documentary which revealed that thousands of North Carolinians were still waiting to return home six years after the fact. Many were still living in cheap motels and had no access to any of their possessions — some have even died in the intervening years.
“The story is that ReBuild North Carolina has bungled this program, left thousands of people homeless who are hurricane survivors who’ve already sustained incredible trauma — and no one is helping them,” says Lisa Sorg, a veteran journalist who has covered the situation extensively for NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning public-policy think tank.
In her latest piece, published today, Sorg says that as of this month, ReBuild NC has spent over $19 million in the last six years on hotel rooms or other rentals while hurricane victims wait for their permanent homes to be repaired or rebuilt. That’s about $7 million more that the agency spent as of September 14, or more than $1 million a month.
Tomorrow’s hearing begins at 10:00 AM. CLC will post a video of the complete hearing here in the next few days.
Update: We have posted the video of the March 29 hearing here.