Ocracoke residents mystified after FEMA rejects individual Dorian aid for them

Hurricane Dorian did not cause enough damage in North Carolina — including on Ocracoke Island — for residents in affected areas to receive aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance program, FEMA told Gov. Roy Cooper this week.

Cooper had requested such assistance for Carteret, Dare, Hyde and New Hanover counties as a result of the early September storm. FEMA’s Individual Assistance includes a slew of disaster relief efforts, including grants for home repair, unemployment assistance and the disaster food stamp program, among others.

In the denial letter, Jeff Byard, the associate administrator of FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, wrote, “The damage to the infrastructure was significant in each of the areas designated for Public Assistance. However, based on our review of all the information available, including the results of the joint federal, state, and local government Preliminary Damage Assessments, it has been determined that the impact to the individuals and households from this event is not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance.”

The FEMA denial was met with anger and confusion in parts of North Carolina hit hard by September’s storm, especially the village of Ocracoke, where floodwaters from Dorian unexpectedly inundated much of the inhabited part of Ocracoke at what are believed to be record levels.

Immediately after the flooding, electrical inspectors went to all the homes on the island and pulled the meters on 415 houses, because the meters had been inundated with water. The island has a total of about 1,200 homes.

Mystified by FEMA

Tom Pahl, who lives on Ocracoke and represents the island on the Hyde County Board of Commissioners, said residents there are mystified by the government’s Individual Assistance decision.

“It’s hard to understand,” he said in a phone interview with The News & Observer on Wednesday. “Everyone is disappointed, as you might imagine. The justification in the letter is that the damage is not severe enough.

“It sure feels severe enough to the people here whose homes are being bulldozed or are uninhabitable,” Pahl said. “If this is not severe enough, we’re wondering, what is it going to take?”

Pahl said village leaders would meet Wednesday and talk with state and federal officials about what their next step will be.

Servpro employees rip up floors on the first floor of the Pony Island Motel on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, which was flooded by Hurricane Dorianís storm surge last Thursday. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Most of the flooded homes, Pahl said, were the island’s older, lower-lying ones that tend to be occupied by full-time residents. The flooding left more than 400 full-time residents displaced.

“I’m proud to report that we don’t have anyone living in cars or tent cities,” Pahl said. “All 400 of those people have been taken in by friends or family.”

But they need help rebuilding their homes, he said, and they were counting on some of that aid coming from FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, which provides grants and low-interest loans to help uninsured disaster victims get back into housing that is “safe, sanitary and secure.”

Pahl said permits have been issued for the demolition of seven homes in the village so far, and others have been requested. Videos and photos on social media chronicling the damage and the cleanup show house after house being stripped out and piles of their former furnishings, appliances and structural elements dragged to the street.

In a prepared statement, Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said, “This is disappointing news for families who lost everything in Hurricane Dorian and still need help. The Governor will continue to work with our federal and state partners and North Carolina’s congressional delegation to determine a path forward to deliver assistance to those who need it.”

According to Cooper’s initial request, Dorian damaged 2,001 buildings across the four counties where individual assistance was requested, with the majority of damage happening on the Outer Banks. In Dare County, 1,205 homes were impacted by the storm, with 307 more in Hyde County.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump approved North Carolina’s request for FEMA’s Public Assistance in several Eastern North Carolina counties. The Public Assistance program provides aid to governments for debris removal and repairs to publicly owned facilities, reimbursing 75 percent of disaster-related expenses, with state and local governments paying the remainder.

While the Public Assistance declaration is solely based on whether the amount of damage passes a threshold based on the population, FEMA spokesman Ron Roth said Individual Assistance determinations are based on a set of factors. Those include fatalities, the scale of disruption to the community, whether the local governments can meet emergency needs, the level of insurance or whether there are special populations that could be slower to recover.

“It’s really a lot more subjective,” Roth said.

News of the denial first began trickling out late Tuesday night, when state Sen. Bob Steinburg, an Edenton Republican, posted a photo of FEMA’s letter to his Facebook page. Cooper has 30 days to appeal the denial, according to FEMA’s letter. Porter said the governor’s office is evaluating options regarding an appeal.

On Wednesday, Steinburg said he’s gotten many angry comments on his Facebook page, where he’s been posting updates, and understands residents’ frustration. He also said the denial is solely tied to the numbers.

“Some people are obviously bitter, and I understand that,” Steinburg said. “I would be, too. You’re disappointed. You’re sitting there looking at total destruction, you’ve just been told you probably don’t have insurance or not enough insurance, and now you’re being told by the federal government that your disaster area doesn’t qualify for individual aid.”

Ocracoke in limbo

Kelley Shinn, an Ocracoke resident whose house flooded during Dorian’s surge, said residents of the island expected a decision Tuesday, but many were optimistic. When they woke up to the news of a denial Wednesday morning, Shinn said, residents were “livid.”

“We have been sort of the pawns and contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the state and federal governments. Now that the (stuff) hit us, they’re turning their backs on us,” Shinn said.

In a Sept. 28 op-ed published in the New York Times, Shinn argued Ocracoke needs more help from the federal government.

“Hundreds of my neighbors and friends have been displaced,” Shinn wrote, “matriarchs of our village are sitting on piles of debris waiting for good Samaritan crews to help clean out their homes, while the walls are bowing and the mold is growing daily.”

During a Sept. 23 visit to Ocracoke, Cooper and several members of his cabinet toured Shinn’s flooded home, peering at floors that had rotted through and gazing upon flooded notebooks.

Shinn, whose legs were amputated when she was a teenager, told Cooper how she had gone swimming in the days after the storm only to have a wave pull a prosthetic leg off and into the surf. The Ocracoke Observer posted about what had happened to Shinn, imploring her neighbors to keep an eye out for the leg and return it if they happened upon it. Someone did find the leg and bring it back, Shinn told the governor.

Since Cooper’s visit, Shinn has cleared her yard of the remaining debris, cut her gas off and dragged her stove to the curb to be picked up. Among some of the debris, she found her son’s father’s ashes, where the floodwaters had carried them.

Also, the toilet in a first-floor bathroom has fallen through the rotten floor.

A car and a boat on Ocracoke, seen here on Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, are still sitting where they landed after being carried by flood waters during Hurricane Dorian. Itís estimated 300-400 vehicles were ruined during the storm. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

Many of the volunteer groups that were on Ocracoke have left, Shinn said Wednesday, and residents throughout the village have developed a cough from being exposed to mold while ripping their flooded homes apart. Shinn has received a steroid shot to help with the mold that has gotten into her lungs.

“We have to rebuild our homes in order to get anywhere,” Shinn said, “but we have no foreseeable economy in the future and no jobs right now, so there’s no way for us to get money to come in unless we get FEMA Individual Assistance.”

Rachel O’Neal, a fourth-generation Ocracoker, bought her house in 2016. The house, a small place built in 1950, is right across the street from the house her great-grandparents built and where her parents live now.

O’Neal, 37, works two jobs and still could not afford flood insurance for the home, but didn’t figure she needed it because, “That house had never had water in it.”

But with Hurricane Dorian, she was knee-deep in water inside the house. It wrecked all the work she had done on the house in the past three years, along with the furniture she had borrowed money to purchase and most all the material possessions she and her young son held dear.

They’re now living in a room above a garage on the island, for which O’Neal says she’s grateful. But she has no kitchen and no laundry.

O’Neal doesn’t know what help she would be eligible for if FEMA activated the Individual Assistance program at Ocracoke, but anything would help. A volunteer has been helping her tear out the damaged parts of the house and she’s using a charge card to buy new materials.

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay for that,” she said. “But I’ll find a way.”

O’Neal considers herself fortunate because she is one of few people on the island who has a job that isn’t reliant on tourism. While many people haven’t had a paycheck since early September, she is still able to work one of her two jobs, at the local electrical cooperative. Her second job waiting tables at an Ocracoke restaurant is on hiatus until the flooded-out business is repaired.

Like others, O’Neal read the letter saying the help was denied.

“The language they used was insulting,” she said. “How can the government look at us and say it’s not severe enough?”

O’Neal said she and others have paid taxes their whole working lives and never complained that federal money was used to help disaster victims in other places.

“But now we need it, and nobody is going to help us,” she said. “The government doesn’t think we’re important enough.”

Volunteer help that arrived in the days after the hurricane is now leaving, and O’Neal said funds raised for the island’s recovery have not reached people like her. She hopes the government still will come through, but said, “We’re still in limbo. We need to move on with our lives, and we don’t know how we’re going to do that.”

Reporter Will Doran contributed to this story.

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.
Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.