By Allen Turner
State officials announced Friday that another $3.6 million in disaster recovery money for housing has been awarded to buy out 34 properties in Fair Bluff damaged by flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016.
The $3,651,710 announced Friday for property buy-outs is in addition to $4,622,134 announced on June 25 for 20 other homes in Fair Bluff to be reconstructed and another 17 to be elevated above the flood plane.
That brings the total amount announced in less than two weeks for Fair Bluff to $8,273.844.
N.C. Emergency Management (NCEM) Director Mike Sprayberry was notified that the latest money had been approved in a letter dated Tuesday from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and his office notified local officials Friday.
Friday’s announcement of the $3.6 million for Fair Bluff was part of a larger announcement of $71.6 million for 558 properties statewide. That $71.6 million will be used to buy out a total of 152 properties (including the 34 in Fair Bluff), reconstruct 15 homes and elevate another 25.
The way the buy-out program works is that the money – which comes from FEMA with some state funding added – will be used to purchase the properties, which would then be signed over to the local government but with deed restrictions that prohibit anything from ever again being built on the property.
There’s still uncertainty about when the property owners will see any money. According to Friday’s news release, emergency management officials “expect the money to be awarded by early August to help Matthew survivors get into more flood-resistant homes.”
Although that news release said the money will be awarded next month, Fair Bluff town consultant Al Leonard said Monday that there’s no way property owners can receive their funds that quickly. The town government first will have to select a qualified appraiser to place a value on each of the properties, Leonard said. That will require town council action and the governing body is not scheduled to meet in July. After those appraisals are done, the property owners can either accept the appraiser’s figures or disagree and hire another appraiser at their own expense to set a value on the properties. Before funds can be distributed, the final appraised values must be agreed upon by the town and the property owner.
Only after that has happened will the properties will be acquired and owners receive their money. Bids will be let for actual demolition work on the properties after acquisition has been complete through real estate closings.
Two of the property owners in Fair Bluff had not heard that the funds had been approved until contacted by this newspaper Friday. One of them, Jody Johnson, a professional photographer who became the unofficial visual -historian of the flood damage in Fair Bluff, lost both his home and his business in the flood. “That’s great news, finally,” Johnson said.
He had not received any official notification of the award and, because an appraisal has yet to be done, didn’t know how much money would be involved in the buy-out of his home, but he said the relief will be particularly welcome because he still has been saddled with making monthly mortgage payments on the house, which has not been fit for human habitation since the flood. The assistance he receives will be limited to his home, however; no federal programs have been announced for commercial properties like the photography studio he lost in the flood.
In addition to the Fair Bluff awards announced Friday and previously, other awards that had been announced earlier for Columbus County included $913,295 to elevate five homes in unincorporated areas of the county and to buy out a sixth, and $188,254 to elevate one property and buy out another in Whiteville
Fourteen of the properties announced for statewide buy-out Friday have only been conditionally approved pending final environmental review to ensure there is no adverse historical impact. For the remaining 178 properties statewide that FEMA approved, the state can now enter into the required project agreements with the receiving counties and towns and discuss program requirements. It is then up to each local government to select contractors and begin the actual demolition work. The city or county will distribute the grant funds to the homeowner and will then be reimbursed by NCEM.
The federal program uses a combination of federal and state funds to elevate, reconstruct or buy out qualified homeowners whose home is at risk of repeated damage from flooding. Following major disasters, a percentage of total federal recovery funds is designated to develop more resilient communities using one of the approved methods. North Carolina earned the status of an Enhanced Hazard Mitigation state based on its thorough plan and program history, meaning a larger portion of the program is paid for by federal funds. That enhanced status, which FEMA renewed in May, translated into an additional $25 million to help 210 more homeowners following Hurricane Matthew.
NCEM’s news release said, “This program has proven its value repeatedly, helping protect homeowners from additional disasters. More than 4,000 North Carolina homeowners and properties have benefited from mitigation measures during the past 20 years.”
In the months after Hurricane Matthew, NCEM staff evaluated more than 3,000 applications from homeowners for HMGP funding, 10 times the typical number as compared to similar disasters. As a comparison, it took staff 18 months to evaluate 300 applications after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
NCEM staff then submitted applications to FEMA to either acquire, elevate or reconstruct nearly 800 different properties damaged by Hurricane Matthew statewide. NCEM supported local governments by either writing or paying for the writing of the grant applications on their behalf.