Marie Weaver had little choice but to tear down the home where three generations of her family were raised.
Disaster relief officials said the bungalow was damaged beyond repair in the devastating flood after Hurricane Matthew, and her family was assured that help was on the way for a new place to live.
Weaver’s daughters planned to have the 85-year-old great grandmother settled in a new home by Mother’s Day after being told her claim for federal aid was accepted.
But those dreams where demolished when the housing aid was later denied because the caseworker submitted paperwork for the wrong disaster.
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Now, all that is left of Weaver’s home since 1951 is a small plot of land marred by piles of rubbish.
How it happened
Weaver’s daughters have worked tenaciously on their ailing mother’s behalf to cut through the maze of disaster aid and bureaucratic red tape since their first nights in the Red Cross shelter where they registered for FEMA assistance.
Emergency officials evacuated the small town of Bucksport in October, one week after Hurricane Matthew, when rising flood waters invaded the area. More than 100 residents including Weaver spent several days in the James R. Frazier Community Center while their houses remained under water.
Weaver was approved for 2016 FEMA aid without any problem. The confusion started after she applied for HUD funding in November that is being managed by the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office.
“I went in there and I told the lady I wanted to sign up for the 2016 flood,” said Ueline Lesane, one of Weaver’s daughters. “They filled out the application and everything.”
A few days later, a caseworker from Hearts and Hands Disaster Recovery contacted the family to guide them through the months-long process to confirm Weaver was eligible, and to tear down the old house to make way for a new home.
Hearts and Hands is a non-profit operation registered in New Jersey, which was awarded part of a $5.2 million grant by the state to manage casework for the 2015 flood.
Despite the fact that Weaver’s family asked for 2016 flood assistance, and the home still reeked of the recent swamp waters that had invaded it, work progressed unquestioned from November through March to put Weaver into the system for 2015 aid instead of 2016 disaster assistance.
The Hearts and Hands caseworker signed off on the house demolition after the Weaver family was informed that it was uninhabitable, and all of the requested paperwork and photos were submitted, the daughters said.
On Thanksgiving Day as the annual parade marched through Bucksport, generations of Weavers gathered at Ole Bellamy Drive to say goodbye to the house and reminisce about the good times while growing up there.
Less than two weeks later, the house was torn down.
Without a home
Before the flood, Weaver lived there with one of her daughters and several grandchildren. For the past seven months, they have stayed with different family members until the day when they can be reunited under one roof.
That time was spent jumping through bureaucratic hoops, filling out paperwork, and regularly checking in with their caseworker from Hearts and Hands.
It was in late January that the Hearts and Hands caseworker told Weaver’s daughter, Nelisa Geathers, that housing for her mother had been approved.
“They said mama should be getting a letter any day now telling her whether she should go to Kingstree or Sumter to pick out her (trailer),” Geathers said.
The daughters said they checked the mailbox every day for weeks looking for the letter, and made plans to have Weaver and the rest of the family back in the new home for Mother’s Day.
But no acceptance or rejection letter arrived.
In April, they traveled to the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office in Kingstree to find out what happened.
What went wrong?
Weaver, who is blind in one eye, hard of hearing and sometimes forgetful, moved slowly into the office of state disaster worker Felicia Cooper, aided by her two daughters.
They were initially treated like they had done something wrong, accused of applying for 2015 flood aid instead of 2016 aid.
The caseworker submitted the paperwork and “misinformed” the state, Cooper said. “There’s a lot of mistakes that went on here, none of it was on us,” Cooper said. “That’s her fault.”
“A problem with a lot of Hearts and Hands applicants is they don’t call us, they call Hearts and Hands,” Cooper said.
The daughters said they did communicate almost entirely with Hearts and Hands until the caseworker refused to take their calls in February. It was April before they got the caseworker on the phone, who told them the application was ultimately denied.
Asked what they should do next, Cooper advised the women to start the process all over again to apply for 2016 assistance, through the state – aid that is not expected to arrive until late fall or winter.
Finding a home for mama
The Sun News has followed the Weaver family through the tragedy of losing their home and the recovery process since their first nights in the Red Cross shelter last year.
It was after the meeting with Cooper that the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office in Columbia was contacted on May 4 by a reporter to explain the Weaver family situation and to determine the role that Hearts and Hands played in the state’s disaster recovery efforts.
Beth Parks, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said Hearts and Hands handled thousands of cases for the state and did “a fantastic job.”
However, Parks was troubled when she learned of the Weaver family’s experience, and pledged their case would get immediate attention.
“I don’t know why they tore the house down, we don’t do that at all,” Parks said.
“Whoever decided to tear down the home should have rebuilt it,” Parks said. “We would not tear down a home unless we replaced it.”
Parks called back the next day to report that the Weaver case was put on the agenda for a hearing at a special case panel meeting on Tuesday to try and resolve the situation.
“Everyone I shared this case with was upset,” Parks said. “They were like, ‘oh my gosh, how did it happen?’ ”
“If there’s anything (the panel) can do, they will find it,” Parks said.
Hearts and Hands Disaster Recovery
The non-profit group was created after Hurricane Sandy and is based in New Jersey.
The $5.2 million federal grant they were awarded to do casework will be split among two other non-profit groups also doing disaster recovery work in the state: the Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas based out of Columbia and S&D Healthcare management LLC based in Marietta Georgia.
Falon Alo, the director of Hearts and Hands Disaster Recovery, said her staff handled nearly 6,000 cases for the 2015 flood aid, and that each caseworker was in charge of nearly 100 cases.
The Weaver family case, she said, was “an unfortunate circumstance.”
Alo said it is protocol for the caseworker to make a home visit once the paperwork is submitted, but declined to discuss specifics in this instance, including when or if the caseworker made a home visit for Weaver.
Alo denied that the caseworker was contacted before the home was torn down or that she approved it. She said no paperwork or photos were ever received by Hearts and Hands.
“Our caseworker has made multiple contacts, tried to contact them since December,” Alo said. “We mailed out all the paperwork but were unable to make contact with the client; she was not calling us back.”
“We found out from the state she was approved for the block grant on Jan. 26 and her home was assessed on Feb. 2. We’ve done everything we can to help the client,” Alo said.
Geathers says the caseworker never made a home visit, but that they were in regular phone contact until the caseworker told them their claim was approved. It was not until they tracked the caseworker down in April that they were told the claim was rejected.
“I couldn’t pick her out of a lineup because I never saw her here,” Geathers said.
Geathers says she asked the caseworker whether she needed to see the house before it was demolished, and was told to just send the photos and paperwork stating the building was beyond repair.
Geathers said after she emailed all of the information requested, she called the caseworker to confirm she had received it.
We were told to go ahead and let them demolish the house, Geathers said.
“I’m just going to sit back and let them keep digging their hole, because a lie is a lie,” Geathers said.
Weaver’s second chance
When the special case panel met earlier this week, the decision was made to reopen the Weaver case and to find a way to get her a home.
“I expect her to be priority one,” Parks said Thursday.
“It’s the most confusing thing that happened to her, it was awful,” Parks said. “But I’m so glad (this was) brought to our attention, because we did not know. Some people might just sit back and take it, but they shouldn’t.”
The Weaver family was quickly contacted by agency officials and told theirs was now a priority case.
The news came at a critical time. Weaver’s health had slowly begun to decline over the past few months, but her daughters said the news lifted her spirits and gave her new hope.
“I’ve been praying all the time, but I will pray more,” Weaver said. “I will thank God for how he allowed them to help me.”
Weaver won’t be in her own home by Mother’s Day, but her daughters say that what counts is that they have a second chance.
2016 Hurricane Disaster aid
Disaster officials say the Weaver case is an anomaly, a unique situation that arose because of back-to-back disasters in October 2015 and October 2016, both of which caused extensive flooding damage.
FEMA funding was quickly forthcoming in both disasters. However, distribution for housing aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the 2015 flood did not begin until November of 2016, a month after Hurricane Matthew struck when families affected by that disaster first started seeking aid.
Complicating the situation, former Gov. Nikki Haley decided to separate the recovery duties from the Emergency Management Division — the state’s equivalent of FEMA — and announced the creation of the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office in the state Commerce Department in the days following the 2015 record rainfall.
But before she did that, the application process was already underway for the grant that went to Hearts and Hands and other groups, said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the Emergency Management Division that oversaw the grant.
South Carolina received $156 million for 2015 disaster recovery housing efforts, $60 million of which went to the City of Columbia, Richland County and Lexington County and $96 million to seven counties including Horry.
That federal funding did not reach the state until late last year, and 2015 flood victims began applying for aid in November.
The last day to apply for 2015 assistance was just weeks ago on April 30, and 295 applications from Horry County were submitted. Of those, 15 were approved for aid, 19 were denied and the rest are still being processed.
For 2016 Hurricane Matthew assistance, federal officials at HUD are still reviewing the action plan submitted by the state.
Officials expect it will be later this fall before victims from Hurricane Matthew will start to get federal housing assistance.
Parks said Hearts and Hands will not be processing casework for the Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.