Thursday, March 23, 2023

An idle FEMA trailer in Pender County reveals confusion, bureaucratic obstacles 

A Burgaw farm owner waited a month before she could live in her FEMA trailer, only to find a leak when she was allowed in. Pender County and FEMA officials respond to her long delay, and reveal a pattern of inspections and re-inspections since the trailers' arrival to the county.

Stephanie Kramer's FEMA trailer sat idle for a month before she was allowed into it, only to find a water leak from the ceiling. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Stephanie Kramer’s FEMA trailer sat idle for a month before she was allowed into it, only to find a water leak from the ceiling. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — Nearly four months after Hurricane Florence flooded her farm, a mile west of the Northeast Cape Fear River, Stephanie Kramer was finally given keys to a FEMA travel trailer.

The new Starcraft Mossy Oak RV stood idle on her property for over a month, and the problems began the day of its arrival.

“When the FEMA guy delivered the trailer, he actually drove it into a ditch in my driveway,” Kramer said. “So it arrived with the top vent broken and the back damaged … Then came the electrical issues.”

RELATED: Displacement in Pender County, Part Three: ‘Nobody really has one finger on it’

Weeks after the storm she had paid for a licensed electrician to install a temporary power pole, which was less than 20-feet from the newly arrived trailer. But FEMA contractors told her she needed a “separate temporary pole” for the trailer, not clarifying whether this was a county, state, or FEMA regulation.

“I didn’t have any issues with the county inspecting or passing it. Every mistake regarding the electrical set-up was made by FEMA’s contractors,” Kramer said.

A comedy of errors

A crew from MLU Services, a Georgia company that won a major contract from FEMA to “haul and install” the trailers post-Florence, set another pole nearby but tripped its 30-amp breaker when trying to connect it to the trailer. According to Kramer, the trailer was clearly marked to have “50-amp service.”

“So MLU brought out a 30-amp cord. The plugs didn’t match, so another electrical contractor came and re-wired the plug. Well, he wired it for 220 [volts] instead of 110, and it fried the outlets and refrigerator. So a different contractor came and fixed that.”

MLU then sent a crew to install a series of five electric poles across her property to a water well that was located more than a hundred yards from the trailer. At the time, an MLU employee told Kramer it was a Pender County requirement to install a power source near a well.

“They agreed that it was unnecessary but were told it was required,” Kramer said. “I never got a clear explanation from anyone as to who was requiring that I have it, just that I was required to have it.”

FEMA contractors told farm owner Stephanie Kramer she needed a power source next to her water pump house, but said she didn't need to actually use it. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
FEMA contractors told farm owner Stephanie Kramer she needed a power source next to her water pump house, but said she didn’t need to actually use it. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

On Dec. 10 she was allowed into the trailer but has since refused to sleep in it because of a leak coming from its ceiling. Like many in the flood-stricken areas near the river, she is avoiding the risk of breathing mold-infected air.

Kramer, who has been living with her neighbors since Florence, does not understand the hold-up.

“I had a neighbor who had a double-wide [trailer] set up as a permanent structure in two days. I don’t understand why I can’t get a temporary camper set up in less than a month,” Kramer said.

Pender County, FEMA respond

According to the county’s head of inspections, Scott Henry, it is not a county requirement for a power source to be installed near a well.

“It’s a requirement of the county that the travel trailer has water supplied to it,” Henry said. “If they don’t have running water, they’re not going to get in.”

When told that Kramer already had running water available to connect to the trailer, powered by the temporary electric pole she had installed soon after the hurricane, Henry said that the go-ahead for the trailers’ utility connections comes from FEMA.

“All I can tell you is, I don’t do the site surveys for locating the travel trailers and determining what utilities are needed. FEMA’s supposed to be handling that,” Henry said.

When briefed on the details of Kramer’s long delay, FEMA spokesman John Mills said he could not discuss the case of a specific individual due to the federal Privacy Act.

After a trailer is placed on private property, according to Mills, its necessary connections to “working utilities” is a responsibility of the property owner.

“The utilities have to be working,” Mills said.

According to Mills, approximately 400 Florence victims spread across 13 North Carolina counties are now living in the trailers – 100 in Pender County alone — and FEMA employees are working into Christmas to expedite trailer move-ins.

He expects the total number to reach 600 in the coming weeks.

Inspections and re-inspections

A Pender County Inspections approval notice on the temporary electric pole installed by a FEMA contractor. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A Pender County inspections approval notice on the temporary electric pole installed by a FEMA contractor. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Home renovator Frank Perillo lived in Kramer’s neighborhood until Hurricane Floyd hit the region in 1999, after which he moved to New York. He returned after Florence to help his former neighbors rebuild and currently stays in his own trailer on Kramer’s property.

Pointing toward the five electric poles running beside the horse pasture toward the pump house, he wondered how such an elaborate project was justified to “give water which we already had.”

“After all the hurricanes, why is the system not more streamlined? It seems you can’t get one person from Pender or one person from FEMA to agree, or anyone to make a total committed answer,” Perillo said. “Too many people are second-guessing: the inspectors, the electricians, and that’s what I think is really complicating it.”

The county’s assistant manager, Chad McEwen, said he understood the perception among some residents that the county has caused the delays. But he said there have been numerous cases where multiple re-inspections were required to get compliance with the building codes — which are not county codes but international building codes that “our inspectors are obligated under law to enforce.”

“Pender County shares in the frustration due to the delays that we have absolutely no control over,” McEwen said. “The codes are not the problem. The problem is having to inspect, re-inspect, re-inspect, and re-inspect again in some instances work that should be cut and dry, simple, for contractors who are familiar with the code.”

“These are pretty blatant, simple things that should be taken care of, things that should not result in an inspection failing. And that’s the frustrating part,” McEwen said.

The delays witnessed by the county, according to McEwen, are not caused by “nit-picking inspectors choosing not to see gray areas in the code,” but instead mistakes caused by FEMA contractors who in turn create the need for time-consuming re-inspections.

When the county first began receiving FEMA trailers, McEwen said inspections failed on almost everyone one of them. Improvements were made after a roundtable discussion with a FEMA contractor, 10 to 15 FEMA representatives, state Emergency Management employees, and county officials, according to McEwen.

“But it’s still by no stretch a satisfactory process to get these people into these units as quickly as they should get into them,” McEwen said.

“Just in the Copperhead Lane area here, four or five [trailers] have been wired wrong,” Perillo said. “Plumbing and electricity and water and septic have been done two or three times on jobs. One person does it one way and the other person does it another. It just seems that no one really has one finger on it. And there’s a bunch of people telling a bunch of different stories to a bunch of different people on how to do it.”

Mark Darrough can be reached at

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