RALEIGH — The Hurricane Subcommittee of the Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations received updates from officials with the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR) and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) in a tense hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
The subcommittee held its first meeting in September on the anniversary of Hurricane Florence. The hearing on NCORR Chief Operating Officer Laura Hogshead and DPS Eddie Buffaloe were both issued invitations to appear before the subcommittee. Legal Aid of North Carolina also provided testimony to the subcommittee.
The hearing ran well over its 3-hour schedule.
Hogshead’s testimony lasted for almost two hours and lawmakers made it clear they were unhappy with the slow progress being made. Hogshead, who in the past worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was appointed to her position by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018.
“I am here to show you the progress,” Hogsheads said in her opening remarks. “But it’s not enough.”
One lawmaker, Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson), later agreed during an exchange about the failure to hold vendors accountable that it was “not enough” and suggested she resign.
“I told you before I think the job you’ve done is unacceptable. I don’t know anyone in the private sector that would keep you employed with all the failures that you’ve allowed to happen,” Britt said. “Now, if you’ve pushed something up to the top and the top has not done something about it – then please tell this committee.”
Britt continued, “But for you not to know what’s been going on in this state or for you to have continued to allow the failures to happen and not take steps to change the process until we came here to this committee, is a failure. And you failed as a director. You should resign from your position. But if you were in the private sector, you would have been fired a long time ago.”
“Our time’s going to be up on this money if we keep waiting as you continue to fail,” Britt added.
There were several other exchanges between Hogshead and legislators about why some general contractors had not been terminated or fined for failure to produce as well as questions about the multi-million dollar contract with the company producing modular home units. Her responses included the repeated line that she didn’t want to “waste time in court.”
“Since the signing of that modular contract sixteen months ago, they’ve only completed 11 modular homes, is that right?” Britt asked Hogshead.
She responded that there were a “number of scheduled completions for December and many more in January.” Hogshead added that production had picked up and 20 to 30 units a month is the expectation.
Britt pressed Hogshead over when her staff could tell the 453 families selected for modular homes when they could expect to move in.
Hogshead differed to permitting, the “pick up” in production and that they were “doing their best to forecast as we can.” Britt responded by saying those were “good things to keep them [the families] strung along” and that was a way to “give them some kind of answer without giving them a real answer because you can’t give them a real answer.”
“This is why people hate government – there’s no accountability,” Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) later told Hogshead about the lack of action taken both by her and her agency with regard to contract issues.
Established by Cooper in 2018, NCORR is a division of DPS created to “streamline recovery programming and assistance.” NCORR oversees Rebuild NC, a program established in October 2018 to aid families impacted by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
NCORR manages the $778 million in federal disaster relief received from HUD for both hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). Under Cooper’s tenure, around 60% of the federal funds have been encumbered with only $231 million actually spent to date. The deadline for the funds to be spent or encumbered is rapidly approaching; 2025 for Matthew and 2026 for Florence.
In her presentation, Hogshead said that 277 projects successfully bid in 90 days and that 95 families had successfully been housed in the 83 days spanning the period from the last meeting on Sept. 9 through Dec. 7.
The increased completion rate after June of this year represents a 292% increase, per Hogshead.
Before COVID, the monthly average for completion was 31 homes. During 2020, the average fell to 23. By 2021, the impact of the pandemic dropped the average to just eight completions a month and the first six months of 2020 only saw an average of five homes completed.
The NCORR chief later said her agency assisted 100 families in the last three months. When questioned about what the number entailed, Hogshead said 76 families had completed construction projects and 24 families had opted for a check to reimburse them for their out-of-pocket home repairs.
Hogshead said a new chief of constituent affairs had been added but noted that case managers have all changed as NCORR moved from case management vendor Horn to all state-based case managers. She also said they have increased the number of general contractors going from around five to six to 12 since she last testified.
Multiple members of the subcommittee brought up the issue of individuals still stuck in hotels or temporary housing, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hogshead acknowledged that was still the situation in many cases.
She was also asked if families or individuals who may be considered part of vulnerable populations such as the disabled, those with small children, or those in a low-income situation were being treated as priorities. Hogsheads indicated they were and NCORR wanted to get those cases resolved as quickly as possible.
Hogshead also outlined “improved processing times” between starting step one and reaching step three. Between steps one and two, the average duration fell from 164 days to 62. From step two to step three, the average duration went from 97 days to 66.
Payment processes to vendors and third parties have also been streamlined with a target of a 14-day average processing time frame according to Hogshead.
Throughout her testimony, Hogshead was asked by multiple legislators about the involvement of the governor or his office.
Hogshead dodged answering several times up until Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry) asked point blank if Cooper had helped her agency to change course.
Hogshead responded that the governor’s office had helped with what they could such as assistance with human resources but that federal HUG regulations were often a hurdle in the way.
At the end of her turn questioning Hogshead, Stevens asked who had the authority to fire her. Hogshead responded that Cooper and Buffaloe had that authority.
Buffaloe gave prepared remarks that paralleled Hogshead’s presentation.
“One year into this job, and I think we have turned a corner in addressing many of the problems that led to project delays and shortcomings in customer service,” Buffaloe said in his opening statement. “The numbers show improvement, but I won’t be satisfied until everyone is back home, and I look forward to working with you to achieve that goal.”
Legislators focused their questions to Buffaloe on what steps DPS has taken to increase accountability for Rebuild NC and the general contractors involved in the work.
Sen. Kirk DeViere (D-Cumberland) asked Buffaloe if he acknowledge and accepted responsibility for NCORR’s shortcomings as Hogshead had in her testimony.
“Sir, this is a team approach. We all accept responsibility – including me,” Buffaloe said.
When asked how many home sites he had visited in the last year, Buffaloe responded he had only been to two.
“There’s enough fault in this fiasco to go around in, no doubt about that,” said Sen. Brent Jackson (R-Sampson). “But we have got to move forward.” He also thanked the citizens who attended, noting that they “are victims” in the situation.
Buffaloe told the committee to “be assured we are committed to this” and referred to those still not in their homes as “our priority.”
“We here at NCORR and the governor’s office, we want it to happen too, sir,” Buffaloe said of returning families to their homes.
Rep. Brenden Jones’ (R-Columbus) closing remarks summarized the failure of the recovery efforts.
“To the folks here who have been displaced for quite some time, to the folks who couldn’t be here, to the folks who fell through the cracks, understand one thing: you’ve been failed,” said Jones.
Referencing testimony given by Buffaloe, Jones said, “The home that the secretary got to see with the trusses and the “A” there, that’s wonderful, but it’s only taken three years to get there! You’ve been failed. But with this committee’s help and working with the secretary, we are committed to you. You will be in our prayers but you also have a commitment from this committee that we will keep holding accountability that this doesn’t happen again.”
Jones said they will work to make sure “we are in a better place” and that “we will hold the administration accountable.”