9 Investigates: Money set aside to help struggling families didn't reach them

by: Erica Bryant Updated:

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LINCOLN COUNTY, N.C. - A Channel 9 investigation uncovered thousands of dollars set aside to help struggling families in Lincoln County never reached them.

Not so long ago, Rebecca Weathers wasn't sure where her family's next meal would come from. Last summer, her husband lost his job, which was their only source of income, and they nearly lost their home.

“You have nowhere to go, and if you have nowhere to go, you're taking your kids into the unknown,” Weathers said.

The federal government has funds to help families in tough times. FEMA's Emergency Food and Shelter program provides money for those in crisis.

Based on the poverty level in Lincoln County, FEMA awarded more than $44,000 to help those who live there, to be dispersed through the county's Department of Social Services.

“We would call and ask for help and they would say, ‘We don't have money,’ or ‘It’s not here.’  Over and over and over, they would tell us, ‘It's not here yet,’” Weathers said.

Weathers’ story was similar to those Eyewitness News heard from others, so Eyewitness News went to the DSS office for answers.

Eyewitness News asked about emails we obtained, from the DSS director to other Lincoln County citizens, saying the funds hadn't arrived yet, and then that the "time period to spend the money had passed."

DSS Director Sue McCracken would not talk on camera, but she said her agency wasn't clear on how to navigate FEMA's new computer system, so the $44,000 was forfeited, leaving citizens there in need with nothing.

In our meeting, McCracken said confusion over the computer system led her department to turn in paperwork late and that it received the funds past the deadline that FEMA said the money should have been spent. So her agency returned the money to the government unused.

Weathers couldn't believe that no one in Lincoln County got a dime of that money and that human error was to blame.

“That's our last hope, is FEMA funds,” Weathers said.

McCracken said she apologizes, and repeated what she said in an email to a citizen -- that she realizes it doesn't make sense and that she can't fully explain it.

Eyewitness News checked to see if other counties had the same problem. They all confirmed that in 2011, there were challenges with the new computer system, but that they still got FEMA money into the hands of citizens in need on time.

Weathers' husband is back at work now, but money is still tight. Both children have medical needs, so they will likely need assistance again.

Eyewitness News told her that local officials say they're ready this time, and that those same funding problems won't happen again.

“I'll believe it when I see it,” Weathers said. “I believe that you guys have done your job. But I'll believe it when I see it on our end, on Lincoln County's end.”

After Eyewitness News’ investigation, FEMA sent us a statement saying it will allow Lincoln County to get that $44,000 back through a special funding request.

When Eyewitness News told Lincoln County's DSS director, she said they will do "anything in their power to get the money."

Eyewitness News also spoke with the new head of the Lincoln County United Way. She said she will make sure this won't happen again.