Homes in the Bucksport community

Rose Graham's home in the Bucksport community of southern Horry County hasn't fully recovered from flooding after Hurricane Matthew. Florence's floodwaters also impacted the area. Jennifer Berry Hawes/Staff

With their homes still underwater or already sprouting mold, many South Carolinians will look to the federal government for relief from the slow-motion disaster caused by Hurricane Florence. 

But if recent history is any indication, many low-income residents without flood insurance could wait years for federal funding to rebuild or replace their homes.  

In the past four years, South Carolina has received more than $220 million for long-term flood recovery through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Disaster Recovery Grant program. And another $78.2 million was doled out to local governments in the Midlands.  

The recovery grants were meant to rebuild communities after at least 71,500 homes in South Carolina were damaged by the historic flood in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

The money is used to cover the financial needs of poorer disaster victims. It's often a last resort, filling the financial gaps not covered by flood insurance policies or the initial relief offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

But the funding is neither immediate or guaranteed. It can take years for applications to be collected, environmental assessments to be conducted, contractors to be paid and the keys turned over to homeowners — even when the state and local governments manage the funds efficiently. 

For those waiting to rebuild their lives, the process could feel painfully slow.

"This is extremely complex stuff," said J.R. Sanderson, the director of South Carolina's Disaster Recovery Office, the agency tasked with managing the state's long-term recovery. "Admittedly, we are well practiced."

By every indication, the Disaster Recovery Office has managed the federal funds more effectively than many other states and local governments. It has helped rebuild or replace more than 1,500 homes in flood-stricken communities across South Carolina in recent years. About 238 others are under construction.

It's a record Sanderson said he would put up against any disaster recovery team in the country. 

Even so, he and the team still need to spend about 62 percent of the money they dedicated to housing repairs and replacements from the 2015 and 2016 storms. It should still allow the state to distribute the funds within the six year time frame set up by the federal government. 

But not all of the money sent to South Carolina is being spent, even at that pace. 

Richland County has far less to show for the federal disaster recovery grants it received after the 2015 storm. In fact, most of the $30.7 million the county accumulated sits in government coffers, while hundreds of low-income homeowners continue to wait for help.

Richland officials have spent about $3.6 million thus far, but only $1.2 million of that went directly to housing and property owners. The federal government has flagged Richland County as a “slow spender," meaning it isn’t on pace to fully spend its grant award by the closeout date of 2022.

The county held a press conference in April of this year to celebrate the first trailer replaced since the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin hit South Carolina fall of 2015. 

Greg Pearce, a Richland County Councilman said about 18 mobile homes have now been replaced and 11 other homeowners with property in flood zones are ready to be bought out by the county.

The recovery programs, according to Pearce, have been held up by the rules and bureaucracy surrounding the recovery grants. But he remains confident the funds will get to flood victims eventually.

“This has been the most complicated process we’ve ever dealt with, and I’ve dealt with federal grants for 20 years,” Pearce said. “This is extremely difficult. If you don’t follow the guidelines, the penalties for that are tremendous.

“I’d rather be slow and thorough than fast and dangerous,” he said.

The funding does come with strings: Officials have to prove the homes were damaged by the specific storm for which the money is dedicated. Officials can't duplicate funds people already received from flood insurance or FEMA, and the federal government requires people rebuilding within a flood plain to purchase flood insurance — a high hurdle for many low-income residents.  

Many of the local and state governments that receive long-term recovery money hire private firms to help develop their plans and organize the construction contractors. The state hired Horne LLP, a Mississippi company, to manage its recovery funds for 2015 and 2016. Richland County is paying Tetra Tech, a California-based company, $1.9 million to help with paperwork and home inspections. 

Few would dispute that the process is time consuming.

In Lexington County, 13 months passed between local officials receiving their federal grant and the Department of Housing and Urban Development approving the county's comprehensive recovery plan. 

Since then, the county has spent more than a quarter of its $21.3 million award, or about $5.8 million. It's gone to four home repairs and the purchases of 46 other homes in flood zones.

Many of the 120 Lexington residents who applied for assistance ultimately requested to sell their homes, apparently fed up with repeat flooding, said Harrison Cahill, a county spokesman.

“In these neighborhoods that get flooded, people are tired,” he said.

That exhaustion is just beginning for the victims of Florence. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.

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