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It’s been 12 weeks since Hurricane Florence made landfall and wrecked havoc in much of the eastern part of the state. While Wilson County fared better than other counties, 33 homeowners and renters have received a total of more than $95,000 in state and federal grants to help with the recovery process.
John Mills, media relations manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said 18 households were eligible for rental assistance — usually two months rent in temporary housing while repairs are made or permanent housing is secured — and 15 applicants were eligible for repair assistance.
“A lot of times, the way this works is if one or two homes receive significant life-changing damage, that county can be designated for individual assistance related to Hurricane Florence because if those people don’t have insurance, they could end up homeless without the county designation,” Mills said. “It is possible that a large portion of the $95,000 was provided to a very small number of people.”
FEMA-backed insurance also helped Wilsonians with roughly $286,000 paid to eight homeowners.
“About 25 percent of flooding happens in an area that is not in a flood zone, but it may be near it or across the street,” Mills said. “For example, in Johnston County, it didn’t make a lot of the news following Florence, but over $100,000 has been paid in claims there for less than 10 people and for those 10 people, it was a significant life event.”
FEMA staff have completed 128 home inspections in Wilson County. Also, more than $4,000 in U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans have been approved for three Wilson homeowners and businesses. Ten local government entities and nonprofit agencies also have requested FEMA assistance to pay expenses related to debris removal, emergency protective measures or permanent work projects related to Hurricane Florence.
Mills said FEMA has provided nearly $1 billion in North Carolina in various forms of assistance since Hurricane Florence made landfall Sept. 14 in Wrightsville Beach. More than half of the allocation went to flood insurance claims for roughly 15,000 households while about $117 million went to help 33,000 homeowners and renters through the Individuals and Households Program.
“The good news for Wilson County is the damage was limited, but we wanted to make sure those that did receive damages got payments from insurance and received funding they are eligible to receive by law,” Mills said. “Even though damage in Wilson was not as severe as New Bern or Wilmington, we wanted to make sure everyone is treated just the same.”
Wilson County Emergency Management Director Gordon Deno said to his knowledge, the hardest hit area of the county was in Elm City, where 31 homes were damaged by a tornado as Hurricane Florence churned westward. He said many of those homes had some roof damage but most have been re-inhabited, and a breakdown by ZIP code of Individual and Households Program assistance indicates less than $5,000 has been doled out to Elm City residents.
“We’re not trying to pull help from anyone who needs it, but it is frustrating,” Deno said of the 33 Wilsonians who have reportedly received assistance. “I see those numbers, and I have elected officials stop to ask me where this damage is and how they can help those in need, but I have to tell them we don’t have records on the damage, so it puts us in a bad situation.”
Mills admits that numbers Deno recently received — indicating there had been 173 registrations in Wilson County for FEMA assistance — were “accidentally misread or are out of date.” Deno said those numbers ended up being disseminated by others, and he had nonprofit recovery groups come to him in hopes of being directed to those in need.
Unfortunately this is not the first time inaccurate statistics have been sent out. Deno noted that frequent reassignment by FEMA staff adds frustration to already difficult situations.
“Let’s just say that it seems to be more complicated, and information doesn’t flow as easily as it once did,” he said, noting Florence was his 12th federal disaster declaration to work in Wilson County. “I’m not sure where the bottleneck happens. I know it isn’t at the state level because when we contact North Carolina Emergency Management, they have the information ,and we can get it without a big deal. The problem I see with FEMA is that this week we have one set of people helping us, but next week we have someone else.
“I think that is where a lot of that breakdown happens.”
Mills said staff in the wake of a disaster is a combination of full-time employees and reservists who are not obligated to take a deployment. There is a regional office in Atlanta and a regional integration team to help with consistency.
“A lot of people involved in Hurricane Florence were involved in Hurricane Matthew response in North Carolina,” he said. “With multiple disasters across all of the United States, we have people assigned all over.”
Wilsonians who have not applied for FEMA assistance but have uninsured damage and unmet needs are required to register by Thursday by calling 1-800-621-3362. More information on assistance is available at www.disasterassistance.gov/.
Residents can report fraud suspicions through the Office of the Inspector General by visiting www.oig.dhs.gov/hotline/.