Katelen Harvey and Roy Gregg thought they had escaped the destruction of former Hurricane Florence unscathed, when a falling tree crashed through the roof of the modest, brick house they were renting in east Charlotte.
While the couple and their 22-month-old daughter were not hurt, the storm has left them homeless.
Thousands of homes and structures were damaged during the storm, according to the American Red Cross, leaving many without permanent housing.
More than 1,900 people remained in shelters across the Carolinas earlier this week, a count that may grow with flooding still threatening some coastal areas.
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Florence has raised questions about the federal government’s ability to adequately respond to the need following alleged failures last year when hurricanes hit Texas and Puerto Rico.
The stakes are highest for people like Harvey and Gregg who said they don’t have enough money to move into a new house. Five temporary shelters in Mecklenburg County for storm victims shut down more than a week ago. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering rental assistance and hotel rooms to people from nearly 30 counties in the Carolinas, but Mecklenburg is not among them because it wasn’t declared a disaster area.
So for more than a week, the family has stayed in motels when they can afford it. Other times, they said, they have been forced to sleep in a bare office building where Gregg works as a music producer.
“This has been so stressful because we went from the comfort of our own home to having nowhere to stay,” said Gregg, 32. “After the storm, we stayed in a motel for three nights. Then we had to buy food.”
Two weeks after Florence began moving across the Carolinas and dropping record amounts of rain, the Carolinas are faced with a rental housing crisis, said Brad Kieserman, vice president of logistics and operations for the Red Cross.
Single-family rental houses, often with tenants with low incomes, have been hit the hardest, Kieserman said.
“Some folks are going to run out of money and head to a shelter,” Kieserman said during a national press brief earlier this week. “The rental market was already depleted in North Carolina. There will be real transitional housing challenges.”
Is FEMA ready?
The Carolinas’ recovery from Florence has become a litmus test for FEMA, which has vowed to improve after its response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year was widely criticized, according to a transcript of congressional testimony from Jeffrey Byard, associate administrator for the agency’s Office of Response and Recovery.
When natural disasters strike, FEMA offers financial assistance to renters and homeowners whose homes are badly damaged.
As of Friday, the agency said it has approved more than 15,000 applications so far for people in the Carolinas who live in counties declared part of the federal disaster area. That includes 23 counties in North Carolina and another six in South Carolina.
For homeowners who qualify for assistance, FEMA said it would pay for repairs that make the house “safe, sanitary and functional.” The agency typically covers the cost for problems such as leaking roofs, broken windows and faulty heating.
For renters, FEMA can provide money to move into new housing.
FEMA also pays for hotel rooms for families who have no place to live. As of Thursday, a spokesman said in an email that the agency was providing rooms for 195 households.
But months after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last year, FEMA had approved less than half the applications for assistance, according to a January 2018 report in the Houston Chronicle.
Houston City Councilman Dave Martin told the Observer that communities didn’t get the help they were promised.
“FEMA is the most inept government agency I’ve seen,” Martin said earlier this month.
U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said earlier this month that officials will monitor whether FEMA performs better in response to Florence than it did following Hurricane Maria last year, according to a transcript of the Sept. 14 news conference.
“We owe the communities facing Hurricane Florence a solemn pledge: in these critical months of recovery to come, the government will do everything it can to save lives and make them whole – the promises we owe every American facing disaster,” Pelosi said. “But sadly that promise was not kept for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “
FEMA spokesman Mike Wade said Thursday that his agency is prepared, but shouldn’t be held solely responsible if things go badly. Citizens and local and state officials also play a role in recovery efforts, Wade said.
“Residents must realize that FEMA can’t make them whole,” he said. “It takes the whole community. People have to be responsible for their own recovery. We are here to help them on that road. Everything we do is temporary.”
‘I was freaking out’
Katelen Harvey said her family hasn’t been able to get the help it needs.
She was home Sept. 16 while her daughter slept, when she heard an unusual noise and the ceiling started to crack. A large tree had fallen on the house, leaving it uninhabitable.
“I was freaking out,” said Harvey, a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom whose family had lived in the house for little more than a year. “I was shaking. It fell right through the living room.”
When firefighters arrived, they ordered the family to evacuate the house immediately.
Since then, they have struggled to get assistance and save the money they need for a new place.
Harvey said she called FEMA, but the agency refused to help because they didn’t live in an area that was declared a disaster area by authorities. The Red Cross offered food vouchers and other items. However, Harvey said, the relief agency told the couple it could not help with permanent housing.
Deborah Helms, who manages properties for Harvey’s landlord, said she still doesn’t know when the family’s house will be fixed and ready for tenants. Helms said she tried to find them another property, but has been unsuccessful so far.
Harvey and Gregg, her partner, paid $900 a month in rent for the three-bedroom house. They said it took them three to four months to find a place they could afford after their daughter was born.
Now, the couple said they don’t have the $2,000 to $3,000 they estimate it would take to rent another house.
“She is flustered,” Gregg said, referring to his daughter, who was scurrying around the office where the family sleeps. “This is not her comfort zone.”