A broken window.

While 3,100 hurricane survivors lack permanent homes, ReBuild NC employees earn big salaries

By Lisa Sorg

This story was originally published by NC Newsline. It is the first in a series of stories about waste at the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, also known as ReBuild NC.

At a tense legislative oversight hearing in September 2022, desperate homeowners, lawmakers and emergency management experts lambasted ReBuild NC about North Carolina’s failed hurricane recovery program.

“Based on what I’ve heard today, ReBuild NC has issues with waste,” Col. J.R. Sanderson told the oversight committee on governmental operations. Sanderson is a senior government adviser with the Saint Bernard Project, national disaster and recovery nonprofit, Sanderson had previously overseen a successful disaster recovery program in South Carolina. 

“You’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he said.

Since then, the oversight committee has held two more hearings.  Several homeowners told Newsline that committee members and support staff have talked with them privately and have visited construction sites. But a third hearing has not been scheduled, and it’s unclear if it will be.

The legislative committee’s public vivisection of ReBuild NC Director Laura Hogshead did add pressure to the governor’s office and Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe, who ultimately is in charge of ReBuild NC, to try to right the ship. But there is still a lack of accountability on behalf of the more than 3,100 hurricane survivors who are still mired in the system, most of them stranded in motels, apartments, campers or in their damaged homes.

While these homeowners wait for permanent housing — some for longer than three years — ReBuild NC has wasted millions of dollars in federal money:

  • Of the roughly 245 ReBuild NC employees, 34 earn more than $100,000 a year, state salary records show. Those top-tier jobs pay a total of more than $3.7 million annually, while several of those same officials have overseen an ineffective and opaque program. A newly created, high-paying job actually duplicates several existing positions.
  • Over the past four years, ReBuild NC has spent upward of $30 million to house these displaced homeowners as part of the agency’s Temporary Relocation Assistance program. Had these hurricane survivors returned home more quickly, that figure would be much lower.
  • Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been squandered on homes that, because of construction delays – some justified, but many not – have been further damaged by weather. The homes are incurring greater repair costs than if the project had been completed on schedule.
  • Frequent policy changes have created inefficiencies in processing homeowner applications. “We’re just spinning our wheels. We have to go back and revisit the applicants because of all the changes,” one person with direct knowledge of agency procedures told Newsline. They asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “It’s the definition of insanity.”

Since the first oversight hearing last year, ReBuild NC has paid more than $200,000 to the Saint Bernard Project for advice on how to cure the program’s ills, according to figures provided by the agency. The group analyzed ReBuild NC’s procedures, workplace culture, and other facets of its operations, and issued a report to the agency in May of this year. The oversight committee also received it, and presumably so did high-level officials at DPS and the governor’s office, who are routinely briefed on the agency’s status.

The Saint Bernard Project noted that ReBuild NC’s shortfalls are the result of an agency that “prioritizes efforts over outcomes.” And within the agency, there is a culture of covering for one another, according to the report: “There is a strong desire to protect each other and program leaders from missteps and/or public scrutiny.”

ReBuild NC is also bloated at the top levels of leadership. The Saint Bernard Project recommended that ReBuild NC “review the current staff structure at the chief level in order to identify opportunities for consolidation.”  

Yet within six weeks of receiving the Saint Bernard Project recommendations, Hogshead created a new directorship, occupied by Jonathan Doerr, the agency’s former general counsel. As of July 3, his new title is “Director of Recovery Initiatives and Strategy.” A ReBuild NC spokesperson told Newsline that Doerr’s job was not posted, nor was anyone else interviewed for the position. Because ReBuild NC is a temporary agency, it is not required, but it has been common practice there.

Doerr earns $119,000 a year, state records show, yet supervises no one. And until joining ReBuild NC in June 2021, he had never worked in disaster recovery, according to his LinkedIn page.

His new position is necessary, a ReBuild NC spokesperson said, because “as more projects are entering construction and the list of general contractors has grown, there was a need for a position to work more closely with the procurement team, Program Delivery Office and the general contractors to streamline and speed up delivery.”

However, Newsline compared Doerr’s job description with those of similar positions at ReBuild NC, as well as consulted with two people who have direct knowledge of the agency’s inner workings. Doerr’s long list of responsibilities significantly overlap with those of other top officials:

  • “Researches and advises on development and implementation of all recovery programs … Maintains relationships with internal and external stakeholders to advance recovery goals and contribute to professional and comprehensive recovery programming. Advises staff in the delivery of all disaster recovery services.”

These duties are already covered by Chief Recovery Officer Matt Arlyn and Senior Advisor of Disaster Recovery Rich Trumper. Trumper, who earns $160,000 a year, reports to the Secretary Buffaloe not Hogshead. Although he is deeply involved with ReBuild, he technically is outside of its organizational chart.

  • “Vendor relationship management,” is the job of Chief Program Delivery Officer Trace Allard, who oversees the construction contractors. Allard was promoted in June from an interim in that role, and with it, received a $37,400 raise.
    (In interviews with Newsline, several contractors praised Allard for significantly improving the construction process that began under his embattled predecessor, Ivan Duncan. Duncan, who showed favoritism to some contractors and was reportedly rude to homeowners, suddenly resigned nearly a year ago.)
  • “Works with the [ReBuild NC] Director to establish short-term objectives and long-range goals and develops a strategic plan in support of set goals and objectives.”
    A person with direct knowledge of ReBuild NC management told Newsline, “Anyone with ‘director’ in their job title already does this for the program.”

In written responses to the Saint Bernard Project dated Aug. 15, Director Hogshead said the agency is “implementing all feasible recommendations.” That includes eliminating “informal decision-making,” hiring more case managers to help homeowners, and training or retraining staff.  However, Hogshead wrote there were no plans to consolidate. “At this point, there is more than enough work for each Chief to warrant keeping the Chief structure intact.”

Another top-paid employee, Nimasheena Burns, is the agency’s “External Affairs Liaison,” according to the recent organizational chart. (Her LinkedIn page lists her title as Deputy External Relations Director; that position does not exist.) As the External Affairs Liaison, Burns is over “program development and management, data management and reporting, quality improvement process and other duties” – also covered by many other managers and rank-and-file employees.

She earns $107,000 annually, state records show, and like Doerr, has no employees who report to her. 

Burns is also a Durham County Commissioner. Meeting minutes show that she has a 100% attendance record at work sessions; they convene one Monday each month beginning at 9 a.m. Additional budget discussions in May, typically lasted four to six hours. Her job description lists her hours as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Moneka Jani, who left the agency in early January, continued to pull down a $130,000 annual salary after being demoted from chief recovery officer to “adviser” in the last seven months of 2022. ReBuild NC declined to comment on why Jani continued to draw that salary, citing privacy laws under the State Human Resources Act.

Jani now is vice president for business development at DSW, a ReBuild NC contractor.

(Story continues below the graphic.)

Over the past 18 months, ReBuild NC has added nine management positions, which command higher salaries. An organizational chart dated Sept. 5 shows a sprawling bureaucracy that includes nine chiefs, four deputy chiefs, 13 directors and three supervisors. Another 16 positions are classified as “managers.” 

(This doesn’t include case managers, who work directly with hurricane survivors. After ReBuild NC canceled its contract with Horne, an outside firm, the agency moved case management in-house.)

Some top-paid officials do manage multiple employees or handle complex issues. Maggie Battaglin, director of mitigation, including the Strategic Buyout Program, has three direct reports, 11 indirect reports, plus outside vendors. She earns $105,000 annually. Anthony McIver, the superintendent supervisor, has seven employees and is paid $103,500.

Newsline compared ReBuild NC’s salaries with those at the N.C. Division of Emergency Management. Both are under the Department of Public Safety and handle disaster recovery, albeit in different ways.

Of the 223 Emergency Management employees, 15 earn $100,000 or more, according to state records. That equals 6.7% of the division’s workforce; at ReBuild NC, twice that many of its staff – 13.8% – earn that much.

Burning through money, with an unclear mission

On Oct. 8, 2016, Hurricane Matthew dumped up to 19 inches of rain in eastern North Carolina, killing 26 people and causing nearly $2 billion in damage.  The next year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allotted $236 million to North Carolina for storm recovery.

Just two years later, in September 2018, an even more devastating storm, Hurricane Florence strafed North Carolina, killing 42 people and causing $17 billion in damage. HUD allocated another $542 million in disaster recovery money to the state.

Initially the Department of Commerce and the Division of Emergency Management administered the recovery program, but fumbled its roll out. The state legislature created ReBuild NC, which took over in 2019.

Since then, ReBuild NC has spent 91.6% of its Hurricane Matthew grant and nearly a third of the Florence money, as of Sept. 1, the latest available HUD data.

A ReBuild NC spokesperson told Newline the agency “believes it has enough funding” — in both homeowner recovery and mitigation programs, such as strategic buyouts — “to cover its obligations to homeowners that have applied for assistance.” For Matthew, ReBuild NC has until mid-August 2025 to spend its grant and until March 2026 to exhaust the Florence funds.

Under certain circumstances HUD does allow the agency to shift funds within and between disaster recovery programs. For example, Florence homeowner recovery funds can be used for those households affected solely by Matthew — as long as they are in one of the most impacted and distressed areas for either storm. Combined, there are roughly a dozen counties and four zip codes classified as most impacted and distressed for these disasters.

The money must also be used for “substantially similar activities,” according to HUD rules.

If NCORR decides to reallocate funds across programs, it would do that in writing to HUD as part of a public action plan and describe why and how the move was necessary. Over the past year, ReBuild NC has done just that. It moved roughly $50 million from other areas within Hurricane Matthew – including the Strategic Buyout Program, which purchases homes in the 100-year flood plain – and into Homeowner Recovery, according to reports it filed with HUD.

Even with that financial cushion, state records show that as of Oct. 2, 2023, more than 3,100 homeowners – survivors of Matthew, Florence or both – were still stuck in some phase of the recovery program.

An additional 1,466 homeowners were in the final phase, Step 8, meaning they were back home or about to be, or that ReBuild NC had reimbursed them to hire someone else to do the repairs.

Of the completed projects, 201 were done under a Robeson County program before ReBuild NC, rather than local governments, began managing all of the projects. Although the pace of homebuilding has quickened since Trumper became senior adviser earlier this year, that means ReBuild NC can take credit for 1,265 homes. 

It’s been nearly five years since the legislature created ReBuild NC. Even after the intense scrutiny and well-documented failures, the agency has incurred no serious consequences — from HUD, the Department of Public Safety, the governor’s office and the legislature.

And after all this time, the mission, at least for some employees, seems unclear.

In June, a member of the Saint Bernard Project team asked Matt Arlyn, ReBuild NC’s chief recovery officer, in an email if he could “clearly define what the desired outcome is for your program.” 

Arlyn, who has been with the agency since February 2020, replied: “I think this could be an interesting point of discussion … Is the desired outcome a completed house? Making someone ‘whole?’ … I’m not sure everyone would agree.”

A broken window.
Contractors knowingly installed a broken window on this home in Kinston, damaged in Hurricane Matthew. The homeowner has been living in a motel since Feb. 28, 2020. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)