Governor’s office must do much better on hurricane recovery

Published May 26, 2022

By Rob Schofield

A home in Kelly, NC, damaged in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew, the repairs still incomplete. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

As most voters have shown they understand, Roy Cooper has been one of the best governors in modern North Carolina history. He’s a skilled lawyer, pragmatic politician, and a caring and committed progressive who believes in human rights and building a fairer and more equitable and sustainable society.

He’s no saint – no one would ever expect such a thing – but in comparison to many of the cynical and on-the-make charlatans and hatemongers who have infected 21st-century American politics, Cooper stands out as an unusually decent, dedicated, competent and uncorrupt public servant. North Carolina is a significantly better, healthier, and more prosperous place because of his able and dedicated leadership, and that of many of the talented people he’s hired and appointed.

But like all chief executives who find themselves overseeing large bureaucracies comprised of thousands of imperfect human beings performing countless important tasks, Cooper can’t and doesn’t hit a home run every time he comes up to bat. He’s had his share of errors and omissions over the past five-plus years, and one such very important area that is in desperate need of an urgent and dramatic overhaul is this: hurricane recovery.

As NC Policy Watch investigative reporter Lisa Sorg has documented (and continues to document) in an ongoing series of powerful reports, Cooper appointees are failing miserably in delivering recovery services to scores of families who suffered grievous damage to their homes during a hurricane – Matthew – that dates back to the month before Cooper was even first elected in 2016.

The stories Sorg has uncovered – and that she must now seek to wade her way through given that scores of people have been coming out of the woodwork to contact her ever since her first report was published – are outrageous and heartbreaking.

In many parts of eastern North Carolina, people have been living in dangerous and unrepaired homes, motels, travel trailers and automobiles for years. Almost all are people of extremely modest means who are just trying to survive.

Meanwhile, the state agency created to respond to this crisis and aid these people in need, the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), has – there’s no other way to put this – failed miserably. Not only has NCORR presided over and allowed this shameful situation to persist and fester, it has made things worse by repeatedly handing large contracts for millions of tax dollars to a firm that is clearly not up to the hugely important job it was assigned, and that has repeatedly failed to deliver the work for which it was paid.

But wait, it gets worse.

Multiple credible reports from reliable witnesses indicate the company in question received unwarranted favorable treatment from NCORR and that the official in charge of day-to-day oversight engaged in several inappropriate actions – right down to forcing contractors to place their cellphones in a bucket prior to meetings so they wouldn’t record his inappropriate statements.

And that’s not all.

When Policy Watch brought these findings to the attention of agency and company in question, the response was denial, excuse making and stonewalling.

Rather than taking immediate action to get to the bottom of the enormous and disturbing mess Sorg’s reporting revealed, much less moving to address it, the agency devoted its time to quibbling with Policy Watch over minutiae in our reporting and denying that anything of importance was or is wrong. NCORR also still refuses to make the public official responsible for the inappropriate statements to contractors available to answer questions.

Meanwhile, the company in question, moved to immediately hire a crisis communications firm and has refused to speak to Sorg or answer any of her questions.

Of course, none of this is to say or imply that overseeing the massive job of hurricane recovery is an easy one. And clearly, the onset of the pandemic has made things much more difficult.

But doggone it, people have been living in motels for years. At least one family was actually threatened with eviction because, they were informed, the state had temporarily stopped paying their motel bill. Work on building them a new home has yet to commence.

This is beyond outrageous and simply unacceptable.

If the agency didn’t have the tools, resources or capacity to get the job it was assigned done, both it and the Governor’s office should have been (and should still be) raising holy heck with the General Assembly, Congress, and the White House – anyone with the capacity to help.

The bottom line: It is plausible that Gov. Cooper hasn’t fully appreciated the scope of this disaster. Large public bureaucracies of all kinds – public and private – have a long and rich tradition of masking their foul-ups and ineptitude and telling their higher ups the news that makes them look good. With a little skillful P.R., even the most inept agency can manufacture some happy photos and ribbon-cutting events.

Let’s hope this was the case.

But now, for better or worse, the truth is out and it demands immediate action from the governor. Hundreds of suffering North Carolinians await his action.

[Editor’s note: Readers can follow Sorg’s ongoing series this Wednesday as she profiles Roverta, Franklin and Ashley who are desperate to return to their Wayne County home.]