Years after 2015 floods, nearly 200 Columbia homeowners wait on disaster relief

More than 5 years after unprecedented flooding broken their houses, some Columbia residents are nonetheless ready on public funds that have been put aside to assist them restore or rebuild.

After the October 2015 flood, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the City of Columbia greater than $26 million for numerous restoration efforts, together with greater than $13.5 million focused at low-income owners whose properties have been broken, in line with a current progress report on the grant.

From April 2017 to October 2018, 454 Columbia owners utilized for assist by way of the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief, or CDBG-DR, program, in line with Gloria Saeed, director of Columbia’s Community Development Department.

Since then, 49 candidates have had their initiatives accomplished and 207 purposes have been discarded for numerous causes corresponding to failing to satisfy the revenue necessities, failing to supply the required documentation and promoting their property. The metropolis didn’t present a breakdown of what number of candidates have been discarded for every purpose.

The remaining 198 are caught in limbo, nonetheless ready to listen to whether or not they have been permitted.

The metropolis has till December 2022 to spend greater than $7.8 million allotted to assist owners in want.

City officers say they’re on observe to satisfy the deadline. Earlier this 12 months, town took steps to extend this system’s effectivity, together with bringing on a brand new contractor to assist administer the funds.

But for some, these assurances are too late.

Elnora Jones spent the final three years of her life ready to maneuver again dwelling. In 2015, the octogenarian was compelled to desert the home the place she had spent the majority of her life after it sustained extreme water harm from the flood.

Jones’ daughter, Deborah Coleman, helped her mom apply for the catastrophe reduction funding in 2017. But nearly a 12 months later, Jones died earlier than receiving a solution.

Now Coleman is not sure if the applying remains to be being thought of as a result of it was submitted in her mom’s identify.

“That house has been sealed up for years,” she stated. “I don’t want to be stuck with a house that’s falling apart but I can’t fix it on my own.”

The metropolis, citing privateness issues, declined to debate particular person circumstances.

Other candidates, like 93-year-old Robert Hipps, have had no alternative however to stay of their flood-damaged houses and endure substandard residing situations.

The home — which is in a low-lying space and had earlier basis points — suffered some water harm previous to the flood.

But since 2015, the issues have gotten exponentially worse with every rainfall, in line with Hipps’ son Robert. The yard is totally waterlogged. There’s mould rising in numerous nooks and crannies the place rain has seeped in. The floorboards have develop into sloped and uneven.

“We can’t even walk in certain parts of the house because we’re afraid we might fall through,” Kerwin Hipps stated.

When he helped his father apply for this system again in 2017, Hipps stated, he was hopeful. But after spending years ready to seek out out if and when repairs may be made, his religion has begun to waver.

“They always promise they’re going to do this or that but nothing ever gets fixed,” he stated. “Something has to change. We are tired of living like this.”

The most up-to-date correspondence his household acquired was in February, when Columbia’s Community Development Department despatched a letter to all remaining candidates informing them {that a} new program administration firm known as ICF had been introduced on.

Initially, town had contracted with an organization known as Landmark Consulting to manage each the CDBG-DR funds in addition to a separate grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association that paid for main infrastructure initiatives. City Manager Teresa Wilson stated she determined in September 2020 to seek for an extra program administration firm that would take over for Landmark in administering CDBG-DR.

“Landmark took the program as far as they could take it,” she stated. “We are at a different phase of the program now that requires a different skill set and focus on construction management and rehabilitation. I remain committed to the citizens of Columbia to provide them the expertise they need in this phase of the program.”

Landmark continues to manage the FEMA grant. A spokesperson from Landmark declined to remark and deferred to town.

Wilson stated she understood residents’ frustrations with the tempo of this system however famous that town needed to be “extraordinarily careful” in an effort to adjust to the foundations put in place by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Columbia shouldn’t be the one place that has confronted challenges in getting this funding out.

A report last month from the U.S. Government Accountability Office discovered that as of April 2021, Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands had spent solely 5 p.c of the greater than $31 billion obtainable to answer numerous 2017 hurricanes.

The report stated points in how the CDBG-DR program is structured on the federal degree have created “a time-consuming process” that’s susceptible to fraud dangers.

Deborah Watts, who utilized for this system in 2017, stated she understands Columbia officers’ need to be thorough, however their lack of urgency is “hurting the people they’re supposed to be helping.”

Watts lives in Greenview, a neighborhood in Northeast Columbia with a big inhabitants of Black senior residents whose houses have been handed down by way of generations.

The State interviewed 5 Greenview residents — together with Watts and Hipps — who all say they utilized for CDBG-DR funding however don’t know in the event that they’ve been permitted.

Watts stated she and different residents love their neighborhood, and that they wish to see town make investments extra time and assets into making enhancements.

“People here can’t afford to just move out or bring things up to standard on their own. But if everyone here got that money, it would really mean a lot for this place.”

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