LUMBERTON, N.C. — For nearly two years, Davita Harrell has been paying the property taxes and landscaping bills for a home she can’t live in.
Hurricane Matthew swept floodwaters through her neighborhood in October 2016, destroying her modest home in Tarboro, N.C., 100 miles from the coast.
She received $25,000 in federal aid, but local authorities won’t allow her to rebuild, she said, because the property is in a flood zone — putting it under threat again, this time by Hurricane Florence. Now she’s unemployed, living in public housing and hasn’t been able to get any more aid.
“I’m just a little upset because I had my own property and I’m living in a housing authority,” Harrell said.
As residents across North Carolina braced for the force of Hurricane Florence, many in the storm’s crosshairs are still recovering from her predecessor, Hurricane Matthew. The Category 1 storm unleashed catastrophic flooding and destroyed thousands of homes, its power assailing even homeowners who lived far from the coast.
While many people have rebuilt, millions of dollars in recovery assistance remain caught up in toxic politics between the state’s Democratic governor and its Republican-led legislature. North Carolina received a fraction of the nearly $1 billion in federal disaster relief it requested from the Trump administration. As Gov. Roy Cooper criticized the federal government’s decision to “turn their backs” on the state, Republican state legislators fired back, accusing him of dawdling in getting the funds into residents’ hands.
“People are hysterical because we really haven’t gotten over Hurricane Matthew,” said Jerry Stephens, a commissioner in Robeson County, N.C. “They haven’t gotten back in their houses. We haven’t even gotten the money to start redoing the houses.”
Stephens said that at least 200 homes were damaged in Lumberton, a city about 80 miles inland, when the Lumber River overflowed during Matthew.
He knows of three homes that have been fully restored. Residents have been paying property tax on lots with damaged homes and are worried that their land could be wiped out by Florence.
State emergency management officials said they contacted people whose homes were damaged in Matthew and those who applied for aid to give them information on shelters and other resources.
“That [is] a big concern of mine,”Michael A. Sprayberry, the state’s director of emergency management, said of people who are going through the storm while still suffering the effects of Matthew.
But some residents have been less than satisfied with both the state and federal governments’ responses to Matthew.
In April 2017, Cooper, the governor, asked for $929 million in federal money to help families, businesses and communities that were still rebuilding from Matthew. The Trump administration initially gave the state just $6.1 million.
“Many affected North Carolinians feel that they have been forgotten, and though the floodwaters may have receded, I refuse to let their needs go unmet,” Cooper wrote in a letter to President Trump in May 2017.
The state learned soon after that it would receive an extra $32 million and, after working through Department of Housing and Urban Development requirements, received a contract in March 2018 for a total of $236 million.
While recovery after disasters is a notoriously slow process, some people have accused North Carolina officials of dragging their feet. HUD has classified the state as a “slow spender” because it has allocated aid funds at less than “10 percent of monthly pace required to fully use the grant by target closeout date.”
The pace of distribution became a point of acrimony between Cooper and the state legislature, where Republicans took control of both houses in 2010, the first time in a century. They face a contentious battle in November to retain that power.
Last month, nearly two years after the storm and just three months before the November election, the North Carolina General Assembly held a hearing to create a special subcommittee to look into why the HUD funds were being released so slowly.
Cooper’s spokesman, Ford Porter, called the hearing a “sham” and “an embarrassing use of the legislature’s time.”
Cooper has been managing a bureaucratic change, after North Carolina legislators in 2016 moved responsibility for administering the funds to the division of Emergency Management. Officials in that division, which is part of Cooper’s administration, have had to work with HUD officials to build a program from scratch.
“Recovering from Hurricane Matthew is a top priority for Governor Cooper as the administration has put more than $750 million on the ground,” Porter said in a statement, “and the lessons we’ve learned will help us move forward with our state, local and federal partners to ensure that North Carolina recovers from any damage Hurricane Florence may bring.”
Those affected by Matthew are angry to see politics shape a discussion that should be about helping residents rebuild their lives.
“What annoys me most about all of this is how it became so politicized,” said Stephen Potter, mayor of Seven Springs, N.C. Floods have long been a part of the town’s history, and Matthew hit hard, leaving a foot of water in Potter’s own home.
“Recovery from any flood event in a town like ours will take years,” he said. “I am concerned that if we experience severe flooding again this year, so soon after Matthew, it may well slow our work even more.”
State Sen. Danny Earl Britt Jr., one of the GOP lawmakers who called for the hearing, contested the idea that politics is behind the move to question the pace of spending.
“It’s almost insulting to the people still out of their homes for their to say it’s merely politics,” he said.
Matthew disproportionately affected poor, rural towns with predominantly African American populations and high unemployment. Some parts of the region are flat and sandy, offering little topographic relief when rivers flood.
Myrna Deloatch has owned her “little castle,” a three-bedroom brick ranch home in Tarboro, N.C., for 50 years. But over the past 19 years, her property has twice turned into a scene of tragedy, destroyed by hurricanes and flooding from the nearby Tar River. Now Deloatch is bracing for another hit.
“I’m going to be part of a third flood,” she said.
The one-story home was first destroyed during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 when water rose to the ceiling. Deloatch rebuilt, only to see it take on five feet of water after Matthew in 2016. The walls, floors and insulation needed to be ripped out because of mildew and mold.
Deloatch lived in a FEMA trailer for nearly a year as her house was being rebuilt. She later stayed with friends and family members and was getting ready to move back in when she got a call: A fire burned the house down in the middle of the night on Aug. 24, the day before her 80th birthday. The cause is unknown.
“All the work and heartache and everything else that went into my little castle is gone now, but what’s not gone is my faith in God,” said Deloatch, a retired social worker.
Deloatch has nothing but praise for local officials, who helped her navigate the bureaucracy of aid. She is planning to stay with a son in Durham, N.C., and expects her property to flood during the storm.
“If there’s going to be any amount of flooding, it will definitely catch it,” she said of her home.
Hurricane Matthew also heavily damaged homes in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a thin barrier island packed with vacationers in the summer.
More than 10 inches of water flooded the first floor of Gail and Matthew Skakle’s Hatteras Village, N.C., home in 2016. In the equipment rental store the Skakles own, brand-new bicycle frames were reduced to rust, golf cart engines were destroyed, and stacks of T-shirts were tossed together in a stained and sodden mess.
“It was like a double whammy,” Gail Skakle said. “We lost stuff in our house and we lost our livelihood in our store.”
The couple endured tens of thousands of dollars in damage to their house during Hurricane Matthew. The floodwaters destroyed their refrigerator and stove, soaked carpets and covered surfaces in a layer of silty marine slime. The repairs were covered by flood insurance, but getting the house back to normal took months.
The merchandise at the store was not insured; replacing it cost upward of $100,000. Through FEMA, the Skakles were able to obtain an unsecured loan from the Small Business Administration to help with recovery. But the loan covered only a fraction of their losses, and they are still repaying it.
The Skakles know their way around storms. Eddie Skakle has lived on Hatteras Island nearly his whole life and can list historic hurricanes like the names of bad exes: Hazel, Emily, Isabel, Irene. Never in seven decades has he evacuated for a storm, and he and Gail plan to stick around for this one.
“If I’m here and a window breaks, at least I can fix it,” Eddie Skakle said.
But the destruction from Matthew was sobering enough that the couple is taking extra precautions this time. Their shop is now insured, and they spent the better part of two days this week moving their most valuable equipment — golf carts, boats, their truck — to land that Eddie Skakle’s family owns on higher ground. If the floodwaters return, they are ready to empty the drawers of their china cabinet and the shelf of their most valuable books.
By Wednesday afternoon, only minor chores remained: moving the potted plants indoors, getting the generator ready to run. They sat on their porch, their faces to the strengthening wind, and didn’t think about what they might lose.
“We’re not going to worry,” Eddie Skakle said.
His wife nodded. “We’ve done everything we can,” she said. “It’s out of our hands. The rest is up to God.”
Kaplan reported from Hatteras Village, N.C. Zezima and Sellers reported from Washington. Kirk Ross in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.