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North Carolina families' homes are in limbo for years after hurricanes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been nearly five years since Hurricane Florence devastated parts of eastern North Carolina and two years since Hurricane Matthew hit the same area. But thousands of families whose residences were damaged or destroyed in the storms are still waiting for a state program to bring them home. From member station WUNC, Colin Campbell has more.

COLIN CAMPBELL, BYLINE: Along a busy highway north of coastal Wilmington, Sonya Black is playing with her chickens.

SONYA BLACK: Hey, Loony.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CLUCKING)

BLACK: Come here.

CAMPBELL: Keeping chickens is a pastime she had started with her family because they can't live in their house yet.

BLACK: And Loony is the gray one because, literally, he's loony.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN MURMURING)

BLACK: He's crazy.

CAMPBELL: Water flooded their home when Hurricane Florence damaged the roof with rain and wind in 2018. Since then, they've been cooped up in a small, donated RV behind their 3,000-square-foot house. It's been gutted and is waiting for contractors from the state's ReBuild NC program to install drywall and flooring. The Blacks haven't been given a date for when the work will start.

BLACK: And it's taken a toll on us. We don't have hot water still, five years later, so we boil water for washing, cooking and so on.

CAMPBELL: Black says it's been especially hard on her three kids, who've had to share space.

BLACK: We have an 18-year-old child. His bedroom is the RV, on the couch. So we've been having to deal with that.

CAMPBELL: The Blacks are one of nearly 5,000 families impacted by Hurricane Florence and 2016's Hurricane Matthew that needed the ReBuild program to restore their homes. It helps people who didn't have flood insurance or had their insurance claims denied. It's funded by federal dollars but administered by the state. So far, just about a quarter of all projects have been completed.

Laura Hogshead with the ReBuild program says it was hard to find contractors willing to deal with the extra paperwork that's required in federally funded projects.

LAURA HOGSHEAD: And the private sector has been so robust in the housing market that we didn't have a whole lot of the general contractors that were anxious to take on that extra burden.

CAMPBELL: But she says that's changing thanks to a slowdown in the housing market.

HOGSHEAD: So we've got about 65 that are on our list right now. About half of them are still working through the paperwork.

CAMPBELL: About 30 minutes west of the Black family, down a narrow dirt road in rural Pender County, Bob Sault is waiting for one of those contractors. He's lived in a hotel for a year and a half. And before that, he was living outside, on the covered deck of his flooded home. Sault has no idea when construction will start.

BOB SAULT: Yeah, they said, I think, 2026 - it's going to be - that's the projected ending date. So, I mean, I don't want to be waiting until 2026, you know? Well - I don't know, though, the way that it's going.

CAMPBELL: State officials are confident that ReBuild will get everyone's home finished before federal funding expires in 2026, but that will require more than 65 contractors. At the current pace, it would take more than five years to get through the remaining 3,800 homes in the pipeline. Salt doesn't want to wait that long to return to his slice of paradise along Holly Shelter Creek. He's been dreaming about what he'll do when the house is complete.

SAULT: Oh, playing guitars and cooking. That is what I really look forward to the most. But it ain't looking like we'll get it this year, you know?

CAMPBELL: Meanwhile, hurricane season starts again next month, prompting questions about whether the state will be ready to quickly help future storm victims.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Campbell in Jacksonville, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Colin Campbell