Hal Lowder sits at his desk in Whiteville, North Carolina.

Hurricane survivor to ReBuild NC: ‘Are we just a number? Is anybody out there a human being?’

By Lisa Sorg

This is a second story in a series by NC Newsline about financial waste at Rebuild NC, also known as the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency. Read the first story here.

Hal Lowder’s office in Whiteville City Hall is crammed with a collection of silver vintage fire extinguishers, a stack of Justin’s cowboy hats, an array of family photos and a simple black prayer book. Small paper ghosts, fashioned by his 10-year-old daughter, adorn his computer monitor. A bundle of sleeping bags is stashed in the corner, because as Whiteville’s emergency service director, he has occasion to sleep here.

A combat veteran of the first Gulf War, Lowder, 63, is accustomed to sleeping in odd and uncomfortable places. But since 2021, when he applied to ReBuild NC, the Lowder family has lived like vagabonds: a year in a damaged, moldy house without heating or air conditioning, which exacerbated Lowder’s COPD. And since June, Lowder, his wife and daughter and their three Airedales, a chihuahua, a poodle, an Australian shepherd, and two cats have been crammed in a camper at the beach. 

“Grandpa,” Lowder said, referring to his father-in-law, “we had to put him in a nursing home because we didn’t have a place for him.”  

The Lowders’ home, a 100-year-old bungalow on Lincoln Street near downtown Whiteville, sustained damage in Hurricanes Matthew and Florence – and a few bad storms in between, including Tropical Storm Idalia, in August. 

Now, after 18 months in the ReBuild NC program, during which time “the house was just brewing and stewing,” Lowder said, the cost of repairing it has escalated by roughly four times.

“I’ve been saying, ‘Hey, y’all need to hurry up. If you hurry up, we’ll resolve this and it won’t cost as much money,’” he said.

A ReBuild NC spokesperson said the agency does not comment on individual homeowner cases.

Lowder has more expertise in the business of disaster recovery than many, if not all of the thousands of ReBuild NC homeowners – and even some ReBuild NC officials themselves. He’s been a catastrophe adjuster for insurance companies, responsible for providing damage estimates after natural disasters. He’s a first responder; a box of Narcan sat in the console of his emergency vehicle. He’s a minister who often consoles people, offering them a ray of humanity in their darkest hours. 

And yet, even Lowder is flummoxed by ReBuild NC.

“If I’m having this hard of a time, what’s happening to the rest of the people?” he said. “They’re just living in a motel room waiting to die.” 

The fixes to Lowder’s house should have been simple. Insurance covered most of the repairs, except for the HVAC system, the duct work and the crawlspace, which Lowder couldn’t afford to do. 

After a year, the family had grown weary of living in a house without heating and air conditioning, so in 2021 Lowder applied to ReBuild NC. The agency agreed to pay for several repairs, including replacing the ductwork and a small extended roof over the kitchen. 

“If I’m having this hard of a time, what’s happening to the rest of the people? They’re just living in a motel room waiting to die.”

Hal Lowder

Then Lowder’s case manager told him, no, the house would need to be razed and rebuilt. Then the agency reversed that decision because the cost of the repairs was so low. Lowder’s home would be rehabbed as originally planned.

But there were construction delays. Lowder’s home continued to deteriorate, and $9,000 eventually ballooned to an untold amount. Lowder said ReBuild NC has yet to give him a new dollar figure, but he said the cost will likely exceed $30,000 – nearly four times the original estimate.

The repairs were supposed to take 45 days. As of mid-October, it’s been 120.

Under public scrutiny, ReBuild NC has quickened the pace of homes being repaired or reconstructed. From December 2022 through August 2023, an average of 53 homes were finished each month; that figure was 12 in the previous nine months, according to agency data.

But thousands of homeowners remain stranded, and construction delays on their houses continue to drain the ReBuild NC coffers: $30 million to house people in apartments and motels. The untold cost of additional repairs to homes, like Lowder’s, further damaged by the weather unrelated to the hurricanes. 

The bureaucratic inefficiencies fail to capture the other expense, which is even harder to quantify: Time.

Time spent by ReBuild NC employees to correct errors, to find missing documents, to unclog the backlogs. 

And time – months, even years – spent by the homeowners living in motels unmoored from the daily and seasonal rituals that form the backbone of a life: birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

Before leaving their home, Lowder’s wife homeschooled their daughter in a high-ceilinged room with tall windows that let the light in. Now she’s learning in a camper. 

“Who’s gonna clean up the mold?” Lowder said. “I’ve had to be there everyday to supervise. It’s a nightmare. Can’t they get me back on track?”

A large blue tarp covers part of a house.
The back of Hal Lowder’s home in Whiteville. The rehab was supposed to take 45 days; it’s now been about 120. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

When it rains at the Lowder house, water seeps into the foundation, which has begun to shift. In late August, Tropical Storm Idalia inundated Whiteville with 9 inches of rain, flooding Lowder’s crawlspace. His outdoor HVAC system bathed in 6 inches of water. ReBuild does not want to replace it, Lowder said.

Water dripped down the kitchen walls. Inside, a film of mold and mildew has coated nearly every surface, including an 18th-century grandfather clock and saddle belonging to Lowder’s great-great-great grandfather.

Although progress has been slow – his first contractor ghosted him – Lowder is generally pleased with Showcase, his new contractor.

“At first, I was really excited. I felt like they had finally fixed the program,” Lowder said. “But then we started running into issues.”

An abatement subcontractor that replaced the windows never removed the lead paint, commonly found in old homes. Lowder swept up the contaminated paint chips himself. Nor has anyone removed materials containing asbestos, as required.

“The communication at Rebuild is bizarre. There’s no continuity.”

Hal Lowder

He’s also been passed around like a baton from case manager to case manager; he’s now on his fifth. “The communication at ReBuild is bizarre. There’s no continuity.” Lowder said. “There are things that I know we should probably document, but they don’t document it.”

At legislative oversight hearings last year, ReBuild NC Director Laura Hogshead blamed several counties and cities for the construction delays, saying they didn’t have adequate staff to quickly issue the building permits.

“That’s bullshit,” Lowder said, whose office is down the hall from the permitting window. On this day, no one was in line. “It takes five minutes to get a building permit in Whiteville if you have the paperwork. You walk in with your plans and you walk out.”

Despite his frustrations, Lowder has an edge on most other ReBuild NC homeowners. His experience in disaster recovery has helped him navigate – and see through – the maddening bureaucracy of the 240-person agency. “I guess we’ve never had this kind of money that we’ve had to spend,” he said. “And we didn’t know how. I don’t know why they’re so micromanaging. But I think the creation of a new agency was part of the problem. It took a long time to ramp up.”

There is a term used in law, social justice and philosophy to describe the dehumanization of people ensnared in a confounding and unaccountable government system. It’s called “bureaucratic violence.” That’s what hundreds, if not thousands of ReBuild NC homeowners have described enduring – in media interviews, legislative hearings, community meetings and on Facebook groups.

 “We’re dealing with folks’ lives. I’d like to go home and not breathe mold. I’d like to enjoy my kids,” Lowder said. “Are we just a number? Is anybody out there who’s a human being?”

Hal Lowder sits at his desk in Whiteville, North Carolina.
Hal Lowder is the emergency management director for the town of Whiteville, in Columbus County. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)