Aerial image shows construction work underway after severe flooding from Tropical Storm Fred in August in Haywood County. Photo courtesy of NC Department of Transportation.

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On Aug. 17, Steve Chaney stood in his Haywood County home and watched his driveway disappear under an avalanche of rainwater. 

Just before Tropical Storm Fred forced Chaney inside for two days, he stepped outside to get a better look at the flood swallowing his property. 

“I walked down to the end of my driveway, and the asphalt road was being filled up like it was just butter,” Chaney said. 

Months after the storm, Chaney and many of his neighbors are still grappling with repairing their homes as long-awaited federal recovery funds have proved difficult to nail down. 

Devastation from the storm

Tropical Storm Fred’s sweep over Western North Carolina hit hardest in Haywood County, specifically the small mountain community Cruso, where Chaney lives — bringing as much as 14 inches of rain Aug. 16 and 17.

Six people lost their lives in the storm, and more than 450 homes and businesses were destroyed, according to county officials. 

When he was finally able to go outside Aug. 18, Chaney said the scene was more devastating than he imagined — uprooted trees and remnants of people’s homes were scattered along Cruso Road.

Chaney’s house, which he’s lived in for seven years, sustained considerable damage. The two-day flooding destroyed his driveway and roof and mangled the spring that delivered clean water to his mountain home. 

Recovering from the flood

In the days that followed the storm, Chaney rigged the spring well enough to get water, but he knew fixing it permanently and repairing the roof and driveway would require more work and cost a significant amount of money — $13,000 by his own estimate. 

So, Chaney submitted an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and was hopeful when a few weeks later a FEMA worker carrying an iPad knocked on his door and asked questions about his property’s damage.

“I had friends of mine that lived in Florida and had been through hurricanes calling me, and they were like, ‘Don’t worry about it. FEMA helps out,’” he said. 

But that hope went away weeks later when FEMA sent him only $312 for an estimate for the spring repair. 

While Chaney found this amount to be disheartening, FEMA spokesperson Ron Roth said the agency’s job in financially assisting homeowners after a disaster is not to pay to fix all damages, but rather to “put a splint on a broken leg.”

“We’re trying to help deal with some of those immediate needs and try to come up with some basic money to help you get your house livable,” Roth said. 

Chaney’s financial assistance from FEMA was less than most people who applied for aid. According to Roth, the average individual assistance in Haywood County was $5,994.

Altogether, 2,599 WNC residents applied for FEMA’s individual assistance program. The agency approved 785 of those applications and disbursed more than $4 million as of Jan. 20.

Chaney said he didn’t know FEMA’s job was only to meet immediate needs until he received the check.

“If these people (in Cruso) would have known FEMA would come in here just to patch it up and pat us on the back and say, ‘I’m sorry for you’ and then go on, they wouldn’t have let them in here,” he said.

Waiting on federal relief

After FEMA awards the initial money for damage control, the agency refers homeowners to other entities that could help with more severe damage, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration or the National Flood Insurance Program. 

As of mid-January, the Small Business Administration approved 58 home loans totaling more than $2.3 million in Haywood County, and the National Flood Insurance Program paid out 120 claims for more than $9.9 million, according to Roth. 

Chaney did not apply for either of those programs, though they were presented to him. He is continued rigging his spring for clean water, and a church group helped fix his driveway and roof. 

“You can only do one thing at a time,” he said. “Worrying about it isn’t going to help.”

Individual assistance is only half of FEMA’s role in Fred recovery. The other part, Roth said, is the public assistance program, which reimburses community organizations and local governments for recovery costs, such as debris cleanup and damaged buildings. 

As of Jan. 20, FEMA had approved $1.5 million in reimbursements for local governments throughout Western North Carolina. That’s a fraction of what’s needed by Haywood County alone. 

On Aug. 26, the Haywood County Board of Commissioners allocated $5 million for flood cleanup, which the county expects to be covered by FEMA, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher said in an Aug. 26 press conference. 

But the reimbursement process has been slow-moving. 

“Working on reimbursement for county and local expenses has been difficult,” Travis Donaldson, director of Haywood County Emergency Services, told Carolina Public Press last week. 

“We’re still working through getting all that processed and getting all the required documentation submitted so we can get reimbursed.”

Donaldson said much of the delay can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has minimized opportunities to meet with federal officials to determine what needs to be done. 

“Obviously, FEMA is not used to these COVID restrictions and dealing with disasters in them, so it’s been a learning process for everybody involved,” he said. 

Further, FEMA has to approve every cleanup project before it happens in order to reimburse the county. Roth said this is because debris removal can be a tricky process in terms of figuring out who collects the debris and where it’s disposed of. Additionally, FEMA can only fund projects if the cleanup is needed for public safety.

Donaldson said there FEMA did not approve some cleanup projects for reimbursement. For these projects, the county will look toward other funding, such as the state’s $124.4 million appropriation for flood relief in Western North Carolina in the state budget.

As Haywood continues to work with FEMA, county officials are also looking into ways to improve infrastructure and increase preparedness should another flood occur. 

“We’re looking at lessons learned and things that we can improve on and put in place to hopefully negate as much as we can,” Donaldson said.

But right now, just five months after the calamitous storm, the main focus is getting Haywood County back to its original state — a feat to which no one can assign a definitive finish date. 

“We are probably only 25% of the way through the storm recovery process,” said Nick Scheuer, town manager of Canton, a town just north of Cruso on the Pigeon River, which also sustained severe damage. 

“We anticipate that it will be between 24 and 36 months before the majority of our storm recovery is completed. Rome wasn’t built in a day is what we keep telling ourselves.”

Shelby Harris

Shelby Harris a Carolina Public Press staff writer, based in Asheville. Email her at sharris@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her.