More than five years after unprecedented flooding damaged their homes, some Columbia residents are still waiting for public funds that have been set aside to help them repair or rebuild.
After the October 2015 floods, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city of Columbia more than $ 26 million for various salvage efforts, including more than $ 13.5 million for low-income homeowners. income whose properties have been damaged, according to a recent progress report. on the grant.
From April 2017 to October 2018, 454 Columbia homeowners applied for help under the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Relief, or CDBG-DR, program, according to Gloria Saeed, director of Columbia’s community development department.
Since then, 49 applicants have had their projects completed and 207 applications have been rejected for various reasons such as non-compliance with income conditions, failure to provide the necessary documents and the sale of their property. The city did not provide a breakdown of the number of applicants rejected for each reason.
The remaining 198 are stuck in limbo, still waiting to see if they’ve been approved.
The city has until December 2022 to spend more than $ 7.8 million allocated to help homeowners in need.
City officials say they are on track to meet the deadline. Earlier this year, the city took steps to make the program more effective, including bringing in a new contractor to help administer the funds.
But for some, these assurances come too late.
Elnora Jones has spent the last three years of her life waiting to get home. In 2015, the octogenarian was forced to abandon the home where she had spent most of her life after suffering severe water damage from the flooding.
Jones’ daughter, Deborah Coleman, helped her mother apply for disaster relief funding in 2017. But almost a year later, Jones died before receiving a response.
Now Coleman is not sure if the application is still under review because it was submitted on behalf of his mother.
“This house has been sealed for years,” she said. “I don’t want to be stuck with a collapsing house but I can’t fix it myself.”
The city, citing privacy concerns, declined to discuss individual cases.
Other candidates, like Robert Hipps, 93, had no choice but to stay in their flood-damaged homes and endure unsanitary living conditions.
The house – which is in a low area and had problems with previous foundations – suffered water damage before the flooding.
But since 2015, the problems have worsened exponentially with every rush, according to Hipps’ son Robert. The backyard is completely waterlogged. There is mold in various nooks and crannies where the rain has seeped. The planks became tilted and uneven.
“We can’t even walk some parts of the house because we’re afraid of falling through,” Kerwin Hipps said.
When he helped his father apply for the program in 2017, Hipps said he was hopeful. But after years of waiting to see if and when repairs could be made, her faith began to falter.
“They always promise they’re going to do this or that, but nothing is ever fixed,” he said. “Something has to change. We are tired of living like this.
The most recent correspondence his family received was in February, when Columbia’s community development department sent a letter to all remaining applicants informing them that a new program management company called ICF had been formed.
Initially, the city contracted with a company called Landmark Consulting to administer both the CDBG-DR funds as well as a separate grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association that funded large infrastructure projects. City manager Teresa Wilson said she decided in September 2020 to seek out an additional program management company that could take over from Landmark in the administration of CDBG-DR.
“Landmark has taken the program as far as possible,” she said. “We are now in a different phase of the program which requires a different skill set and a focus on construction management and rehabilitation. I remain committed to helping the citizens of Colombia provide them with the expertise they need in this phase of the program. “
Landmark continues to administer the FEMA grant. A Landmark spokesperson declined to comment and referred to the city.
Wilson said she understood residents’ frustrations with the pace of the program, but noted that the city had to be “extremely careful” in order to comply with rules put in place by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Colombia is not the only place to have encountered difficulties in obtaining this funding.
A report released last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that in April 2021, Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands had spent just 5% of the more than $ 31 billion available to respond to the various hurricanes of 2017.
The report states that problems with the structure of the CDBG-DR program at the federal level have created “a tedious process” vulnerable to the risk of fraud.
Deborah Watts, who applied for the program in 2017, said she understands Columbia officials’ desire to be thorough, but their lack of urgency “hurts the people they are supposed to help.”
Watts lives in Greenview, a neighborhood in northeastern Colombia with a large population of black seniors whose homes have been passed down from generation to generation.
The state interviewed five Greenview residents – including Watts and Hipps – who all say they have applied for CDBG-DR funding but are unsure if they have been approved.
Watts said she and other residents love their neighborhood and would like the city to invest more time and resources to make improvements.
“People here cannot afford to move or bring things up to standard on their own. But if everyone here got this money it would really mean a lot to this place. “