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Questions raised about NC STEP numbers, what’s next for homeowners

By Erin Smith

With the ending of the NC STEP program in early April, there have been numerous questions regarding the exact number of homes that have received repairs through the program in Bladen County.

There has been confusion reported in learning exactly who is performing work and exactly how many homes have been repaired and how many houses still need repairs.  A company called AECOM was hired to perform and oversee work on homes that were approved for the program. Phone and email messages left for Jim Netterwald, Vice-President with AECOM of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, were not returned as of press time.

Attempts to reach Junior Stoker, who was named as a contractor working with the STEP program, were unsuccessful as of press time.

Rev. David Foster, the Associational Missions Strategist for the Bladen Baptist Association, said that concerns have been expressed regarding the situation with homes that were approved for NC STEP.

“Initially, there were 551 houses that were on the list in Bladen County that on paper qualified for STEP,” said Rev. Foster.

Rev. Foster said that the way he understood the STEP program to work, if the home qualified for assistance from FEMA, then the home was also eligible to apply for the STEP program. STEP stands for Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power.  According to the NC Department of Public Safety (NC DPS) website, the program provides homeowners with quick partial repairs that will make their home safe so they can return and live there while more detailed long-term repairs are completed.

The NC DPS website also states, “STEP will not make complete repairs to your home, but will allow you to continue sheltering at home.”

Rev. Foster said he also learned that if a person resided in a mobile home and it still had the wheels underneath of it, they were disqualified from STEP assistance.

“That knocked out a lot of people in Bladen County,” said Rev. Foster.

He said that during a March 26th meeting he attended with the Bladen County Disaster Recovery Team, Jim Netterwald, the Vice-President of AECOM, told the group that AECOM had received 137 homes for contract work and 88 of those had been completed as of that meeting. That left approximately 49 homes still needing work on March 26th and the STEP program ended on April 2nd.

Phone messages and emails sent to Netterwald were not answered as of press time.

There were also concerns about the quality of the work being performed which have also been expressed. “It was asked (at the March 26th meeting) did those homes pass inspection? He never answered,” said Rev. Foster.

Rev. Foster stated that a building inspector shared that homes being repaired through NC STEP were having issues passing inspection.

Dauphine Jenkins with the Bladen County Building Inspections Department said the department has been contacted regarding the STEP program and they are aware of the program.

“I have not issued any permits for that program as of yet,” said Jenkins. She did not offer any further comments.

Rev. Foster also stated that another issue that ocurred which caused confusion was removal of two homes issued to the Baptists on Missions team for repairs to be made which were taken away from the non-profit’s work load. When they inquired what had happened, Rev. Foster said it was learned the two homes were given to AECOM to perform the work instead. Rev. Foster stated the Baptists on Mission had already purchased materials to make the necessary repairs when it was learned the work orders were redirected to AECOM. As of last week, those two homes had no work performed and the deadline for NC STEP has passed.

Rev. Foster also stated he is unable to learn what the fate of those two homeowners will be now that STEP has ended. He said both homeowners are still living in homes that are now faced with mold issues and one of the homes also has no working plumbing due to the damages from Hurricane Florence.

“The Baptists on Mission are hoping that these homes that have not been finished will be released back to us. I feel confident there are enough resources and materials available (to complete the work),” said Rev. Foster.

On Tuesday of this week, NC Governor Roy Cooper also issued a press release announcing the extension of the NC STEP program. According to the release, 202 more homes will be added to the program. The release does not address concerns that have already been expressed regarding the NC STEP program.

“The original STEP program provided repairs to homes with up to $17,000 in damage. The 202 homes included in the second phase of STEP applied for the original program but had slightly more damage. North Carolina Emergency Management stepped in using state funds to include these additional homes.” The release does not state the how much in additional funding has been appropriated to cover the costs of work on the additional houses.

Rev. Foster said of the program, “It’s been chaotic.” He added, in theory, the program was a good idea.

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