CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. ― On a visit here Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper toured on-base housing that is still uninhabitable as a result of a Category 4 hurricane that barreled ashore a year ago.

About 90 percent of repairs and renovations are done, an official from one of the base’s private housing companies told Esper, as he toured a 1940s mid-grade officer quarters that had largely been stripped to its wooden studs.

“Why did it take so long?" Esper asked.

The answer was complex.

About 3,800 Atlantic Marine Corps Communities properties were damaged by Hurricane Florence, the company’s projects director told Esper, at a time when the area was already dealing with a shortage of contract labor.

Almost 400 of them have been designated for demolition. In total, 4.5 million square feet, or 30 percent, of Lejeune’s buildings were damaged, requiring billions in repairs and reconstruction.

When the storm hit, Ron Johnson said, it took days to be able to get to some of the homes and assess the damage ― mostly caused by the three feet of rain that fell after the storm swept through, rather than the violent winds it brought.

“The first thing is, you do want to do the roof, because you want to stop that water penetration,” he said.

But then, like the house they were standing in, Johnson added, many of those mid-20th century homes couldn’t be fully restored until they were made safe on another level.

“When you stripped this down, did you also check for – you mentioned asbestos – lead? Paint, piping?” Esper asked.

That issue hit home for Esper, who was Army secretary in 2018 when reports surfaced that potentially dangerous levels of lead had been detected in privatized on-post housing through the service.

Remediation took much longer than the roofs, which were fully repaired by April, Johnson said.

Then, in June, another setback: With 90 percent completion of repairs, they ran out of money.

“They basically had $125 million in insurance money, and $175 million worth of damage,” Johnson said.

And when they took that break, he added, many of their contractors had to move onto other projects, causing another delay.

“You guys are competing with just one of many disasters,” Esper said, as contracted labor moves around the country to fix up other storm ravaged bases, like Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina.

Six hundred families had to be shifted around on base following Florence, Johnson said.

In a memo rescinded just last month, the Marine Corps urged all troops scheduled to make a permanent change-of-station to the base last fall to not bring their families along unless they had secured housing ― and the Corps would pay their basic allowance for housing to stay where they were until they could join their Marines at Lejeune.

That funding gap has been closed, Johnson said, and work can now get underway on the remaining 17 occupied homes on base needing repairs, he said, before they move onto the unoccupied ones.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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