Heavy equipment works in the distance to shore up a mountain road in the rural Cruso community in Haywood County, left badly damaged by flooding from Tropical Storm Fred in August 2021. Photo courtesy of Steve Chaney

North Carolina’s state government is extending a helping hand to victims of last year’s Tropical Storm Fred who may have been denied federal aid.

Weeks after Tropical Storm Fred ripped through Western North Carolina Aug. 16-17 — bringing record-breaking rainfall and claiming the lives of six people — the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed workers to survey damage and gauge how much financial assistance was needed.

As WNC residents began applying for the funds, many found the process to be more complicated than expected.

“You had to find (FEMA), and unless you had a computer or something, you really didn't know where to find them,” Haywood County resident Steve Chaney said.

After Chaney submitted his application, his frustrations with FEMA continued.

Chaney estimates Tropical Storm Fred inflicted more than $10,000 worth of damage to the roof, driveway and spring of his home in Cruso, a small mountain community outside Canton.

However, FEMA cut Chaney a check for only $312 after assessing his house. Instantly, his hope to repair his home of seven years disappeared.

“That air went out of the window real quick,” he said.

“It seemed like (FEMA) just wanted you to go out and get loans.”

Chaney isn’t the only person who has had difficulty with federal assistance.

Federal guidelines require specific documentation. COVID-19 has prevented in-person collaboration. These issues have made securing FEMA funds difficult for the local government, said Haywood County Director of Emergency Services Travis Donaldson.

“It’s not just on the general public side,” he said. “There's just as many hoops that the government has to jump through, so we share that frustration.”

State aid for flood victims

To ease these frustrations and expedite healing for the hundreds of WNC families whose homes were destroyed or damaged, the N.C. General Assembly allocated roughly $72 million to Tropical Storm Fred relief in its fiscal year 2022-23 budget. 

Much of the state’s allocation goes to assisting FEMA efforts and funding local government recovery projects. However, the budget reserved $44 million for individual homeowners through the Tropical Storm Fred Residential Recovery Program, or RRP

“That (recovery) could be repairs to your home,” said Nels Roseland from the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management. “If your home was totally destroyed, it could reconstruct or replace your home. 

“Given the very mountainous area out there, everyone’s got culverts and bridges and streams on their properties. There was a lot of damage to those structures, so there is private road and bridge funding also provided.”

The Residential Recovery Program functions like a grant — those who receive the money will not be required to pay it back.

Any North Carolina resident who owned and lived in a WNC home damaged by Tropical Storm Fred and has a household income of less than $94,100 can apply for RRP funds as long as they still own the home.

The goal of the program, Roseland said, was to fill gaps left by FEMA. People who applied for federal aid can apply for RRP, but the state will not pay for any work that FEMA agreed to fund.

“For repair assistance, the maximum amount FEMA can reimburse or pay folks through their program is a little under $36,000,” he said.

“Our program can provide additional assistance, but it depends on the individual homeowner and how much damage they received.”

Applications for the program opened Jan. 10. Since then, Roseland said the state has received 320 applications with assistance requests ranging from $1,500 to $150,000.

Haywood County residents alone have made up for 120 of the applications received so far.

With the program having opened just a month ago, Roseland did not have the exact dollar amount of assistance given so far to the 42 approved applications. He did say the average request was for $30,000, which would put the total aid provided in the first 30 days at $9.6 million if all applications are approved.

“Just yesterday, we had 50 people come into the Haywood County walk-in office. Today we had 20 applications between online and walk-in,” he said Feb. 10.

“We’ve got a team that's working late nights and weekends doing everything they can to help folks because folks in Western North Carolina have been waiting.”

But the application process is time-consuming for the state, which could cause a delay in when flood victims receive the aid.

After an application is received, the state budget office must review it, follow up with the applicant and go to the property to assess the damage. They then work with applicants to select a contractor. For smaller recovery projects, the state teamed up with nonprofit organization Baptists on a Mission to provide volunteers.

Roseland estimated it would take two to three years for the state to distribute all the funds. The program will end when all $44 million is spent.

Communication with assistance seekers

While RRP is an opportunity for respite for Western North Carolina residents still grappling with the storm’s aftermath, many may not know the funding source exists.

Chaney, who still has to rig his flood-damaged spring to get clean water to his house, didn’t know about RRP until speaking with Wmforo for this article. 

“We watch the news every morning, and we haven’t heard anything about it,” he said, before turning to his fiancée and asking whether she knew about the state’s program. 

“She hasn’t either.”

Roseland said since RRP is new, the state’s budget office is still establishing ways to spread awareness about the program.

“We have worked with some press releases,” he said. “We’re not FEMA with teams of press relations.

“What we found is once we are directly working with folks, they're talking to their neighbors. Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective things about how our team does their best to help people. Our most straightforward way of getting the word out is neighbors telling neighbors.”

But Chaney says word-of-mouth isn’t enough to communicate such an opportunity to mend a region that suffered more than $1.3 billion in damage, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. 

“The government is just trying to do it by word-of-mouth,” Chaney said. “They’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll do this for you. Now go tell everyone.’ (They should) go to the local media and have a town hall meeting or something where they can explain this stuff. 

“It's a guessing game out here because nobody knows where to go, what to do or how to do it.”

Apply for the Tropical Storm Fred Residential Recovery Program by visiting www.tsfred.nc.gov, emailing [email protected] or calling 844-935-1744. Apply in person on the third floor of the Haywood County Historic Courthouse, 215 N. Main St., Waynesville.

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Shelby Harris a former Wmforo reporter. To reach the Wmforo newsroom, email [email protected].