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'We just never wanted to leave here.' Some tornado-ravaged homes will be replaced through city partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

GREENSBORO For Yolanda and Kenley Harris, walking out unscathed after a third large oak tree toppled onto their single-story house was the first blessing.

The April 2018 tornado that struck east Greensboro carved its destructive path right through their property.

And they were uninsured.

The second blessing is that the house where they raised their children — on a working- and middle-class cul-de-sac they didn’t want to leave — will be rebuilt with no upfront cost to them. They will be responsible for a no-interest mortgage once they get the keys.

“People don’t believe it,” said Yolanda Harris, who hopes to be back in the neighborhood by Christmas.

Theirs is the first of eight new houses to be constructed through city partners and others who have been trying to help those who lost their homes in the tornado. The storm caused $48 million in damage and left more than 20,000 households without power along a 16-mile largely residential trek.

On Thursday, workers in safety suits began clearing potentially hazardous materials from the Harrises’ damaged house on Llano Court before it’s torn down.

The city of Greensboro has also been involved with the repairs elsewhere — more than 60 houses, 41 of which are complete — and helped homeowners with insurance deductibles as high as $1,000.

“Without the partnerships that we’ve created with the Storm Recovery Alliance, a lot of families would not be able to repair their homes or go back to their old neighborhoods,” Stan Wilson, the city’s director of neighborhood development, said of the alliance. That coalition is made up of 40 local agencies and city officials, and meets weekly to discuss storm recovery issues.

First spotted about 5:15 p.m. April 15 near U.S. 29 and East Gate City Boulevard, the storm and its blinding rain were responsible for the death of a father and damage to more than 1,000 homes and buildings — including three elementary schools — as it traveled across East Market Street and East Wendover Avenue to the Reedy Fork area and into Rockingham County.

At least 37 of the 1,020 structures with storm damage were destroyed, and local officials received more than 173 applications for housing help.

“What’s happening with this house is very important,” said City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who represents a good portion of the neighborhoods damaged. “It says we haven’t forgotten what took place. It says we are still at work.”

The generosity is partially fueled by the concern that without help, the tornado’s legacy might be of dilapidated properties in communities that were struggling to rebound even before the storm left a tangle of utility poles and wires across a large swatch of residential streets. And since the storm, some out-of-area landlords who got insurance checks for the damages have boarded up properties without any improvements 36 months later, Hightower said.

The Harrises, who both work, said they just needed help out of the havoc the tornado wreaked.

The afternoon the storm hit, Kenley Harris was watching the NASCAR race on television while his wife — disinterested in racing ever since her beloved driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired — was napping in a bedroom.

The front door was open as a storm whipped up outside. All of a sudden, Kenley Harris saw their large metal flag pole lying across the ground in their yard.

He woke Yolanda.

“I said, ‘Ain’t no way that flag pole down unless someone came in the driveway and hit it,’ ” Yolanda Harris recalled. “It’s 6 feet in the ground and surrounded by concrete.”

Going to the door to see for herself, Yolanda Harris was knocked to the ground by the impact of the first two trees falling onto the house, knocking it off its foundation.

Then came a third tree, leaving a gaping hole in the roof and wooden beams exposed.

“It could have taken us both from here,” Kenley Harris said.

Trees and debris littered nearby East Gate City Boulevard, with traffic at a near standstill.

The first few days, they toughed it out at home, living without electricity, because they didn’t have money to stay in a hotel.

An elderly aunt ran into Hightower and asked her what the city was going to do to help people, and Hightower pointed them to an information center set up nearby at Willow Oaks. Hightower also sent a volunteer electrician who had been working with her over to the Harrises home, but he couldn’t help them. The power box had been knocked off the house and was scattered somewhere in the brush.

While the tornado tore up their community, it also brought a spotlight on the struggles in their part of the city.

East Greensboro has the city’s highest poverty rates and the largest decrease in home ownership in recent years, although several multimillion dollar projects connected to N.C. A&T have taken root during that time. Storm photos reflected the anguish of families caught in the middle of it.

Their plight also struck a chord with people in Greensboro and beyond.

After declaring east Greensboro a disaster area, the Federal Emergency Management Agency mostly offered low-interest loans in the affected neighborhoods, where income is half the Guilford County average and many people ‘s homes are uninsured or underinsured.

But something significant also took place, that would work in the favor of the displaced.

Early on, even as intersections were being cleared of trees and webs of power lines, donations started pouring into city-endorsed funds that would raise more than $800,000 to help people in need of emergency assistance. And the Storm Recovery Alliance had brought together major emergency-assistance providers such as the Salvation Army.

Out of it came the city partnership with nonprofit groups like Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro, which is rebuilding the Harrises’ home.

“Some of us were out there that same night helping to tarp homes,” said Ruthie Richardson-Robinson, Habitat’s chief operating office, of the early days. “We felt like partners anyway, even though it wasn’t official.”

The city also has access to housing bond money and the money raised to help east Greensboro, among other programs. Habitat — one of several nonprofits bidding on rehab and replacement work — also had efficiency programs to build houses at a lower cost for people who might not otherwise be able to afford them. And as with the construction of other Habitat homes, the Harrises, as homeowners, will have to put in “sweat equity” and attend financial literacy classes.

“When the tornado hit, it revealed that so many people were living, but just surviving,” Hightower said of families living paycheck-to-paycheck and not able to do the work on their own.

“I love the fact that we got creative with the Harrises,” she said.

While trying to live in the damaged house, Kenley Harris caught double pneumonia before the city tested the air quality and condemned it.

Before the couple was approved for the partnership with Habitat, the city put the Harrises up in a hotel.

Afterward, Habitat put them in a town house owned by the nonprofit that wasn’t occupied and gave them a $2,500 credit with the Habitat ReStore for furniture they will move into their new home once it’s finished.

The Harrises have already picked paint colors and have approved a design where the new home will face the cul-de-sac they live on, just like the rest of their neighbors.

“We just never wanted to leave here,” Kenley Harris said of the neighborhood. “The storm was bad, but the city and everyone working with the city, helped us tremendously.”

Ransomware attacks are up in N.C. this year. Here's what the state is doing about it.

RALEIGH — More ransomware attacks in North Carolina have been reported this year than all of 2018, according to the N.C. Department of Information Technology.

Seven ransomware attacks, as of August, have been reported in the state — while last year had a total of four. And, for each of the years 2016 and 2017, there was only one attack, according to data DIT provided to The News & Observer.

That number provided by DIT, however, only included those that were officially reported. A bill signed this month by Gov. Roy Cooper now requires that county and municipal government agencies report cyber security incidents to the state.

Ransomware is a type of malicious software that can deny a user access to data once it has infiltrated a computer — and often the attacker will demand a ransom to have a computer restored.

An attack can leave a local municipality paralyzed. When the Orange County computer network was hit by a ransomware virus in March, officials closed offices including the register of deeds and the housing department — and it affected the sheriff’s department’s ability to communicate.

“You have to restore as much and as quickly as you can,” Jamezetta Bedford, an Orange County commissioner, said of the county’s response to the attack. “Our folks were working overtime and it was a drain on resources.”

Hackers view local governments as easy targets for cyber criminals, Maria Thompson, the state chief risk officer for DIT, said in an interview.

“I think, by and large, both state and local entities are being targeted, because (criminals) look at them as low-hanging fruit,” she said.

Public attention to the threat of cyber attacks has increased recently, after more than 20 local government entities in Texas were hit by ransomware in August. Those attacks left Atlanta’s city government paralyzed, inflicted $18 million in damage to Baltimore, and forced a town in Florida to pay a $600,000 ransom to its hackers.

Thompson said no government entities in North Carolina have paid a ransom, to her knowledge.

In North Carolina, the attacks this year have ranged from cities including Greenville to rural counties including Robeson. A community college was hit as well as a sheriff’s office and an emergency medical service, which led to 40,000 patient records being compromised.

Since 2016, the state’s largest county, Mecklenburg, had public services knocked offline for several days and the city of Durham has been compromised twice, according to DIT.

Most of the attacks are “spear phishing” attacks, Thompson said, in which hackers create fake emails that look legitimate. The email could include a link to a malicious site or it might download malicious files or it might even ask for a username and password.

The fake emails, if successful, will give a hacker access to a computer network. The tough part, for prevention, is that any one employee with an email account could be compromised. Invariably, these attackers have all originated from another country.

A coordinated response

Thompson, a former cyber security chief for the Marine Corps, has been part of the state-backed response system to local hacks. In operation for a little more than a year, DIT and the Department of Public Security have formed a new group — which is still looking for a name — to counteract cyber attacks in North Carolina.

The group, which is based in the State Bureau of Investigation’s Information Sharing and Analysis Center, works directly with the National Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, SBI and U.S. Secret Service to share information and prevent attacks.

“Obviously, we would have wanted to do this a long time ago,” said Thompson, who joined DIT in 2016. “But we have been hampered by cost and the funding aspect of it.”

“But, as we started to look across the landscape and see that we have more counties being hit by ransomware,” she said, “it just made more sense that we started taking more of a proactive approach.”

That approach includes getting the National Guard’s cyber team on site within hours of a reported attack, coordinating potential financial and infrastructure support and providing forensic analysis.

The state now distributes information and educational materials, so that other counties and cities can protect themselves.

Previously, Thompson said, it could take days for agencies to respond to a cyber attack because communication moved much slower. Requiring that local entities must report significant attacks to the state will help, she added.

“It’s not meant to be an invasive type requirement,” she said. “It’s just basically saying, when you have something that happens ... we can help you. If you just need consulting, we can provide consultants to help you. If you need boots on the ground, because you’re down hard, then we can definitely bring a lot of capabilities.”

Thompson said only 69 of the state’s 100 counties have cyber insurance now to help with damage.

Election safety

The state recently launched a pilot program with eight Tier 1 counties (a designation for some of the most economically disadvantaged counties), to install computer sensors. The sensors block and tackle malicious activities before they infect a network.

“We’re looking to get more funding to support all hundred counties,” Thomspson said. “Because we have election systems that sit on these county infrastructures.”

The backdrop of the upcoming presidential election is one reason collaboration between local, state and federal agencies has been emphasized.

A recent Reuters report said the U.S. government plans to launch a program in roughly one month that narrowly focuses on protecting voter registration databases and systems ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

And in North Carolina, elections officials voted to strengthen state laws around voting machines to require “human-readable” paper records, a reaction to cybersecurity concerns surrounding touchscreen voting machines. A federal investigation into whether Durham County’s election software was hacked in 2016 is still ongoing.

An interesting article in today's newspaper

You belong with me: Taylor Swift has a bold plan to own her songs — by rerecording them. Page B12

For the first time in five years, accidental opioid overdose deaths declined in N.C. in 2018

RALEIGH — After years of rising deaths from accidental drug overdoses, the body count in North Carolina is finally going down.

New data, announced by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, shows that opioid-overdose deaths dropped by 5% in 2018. It was the first time in five years that the number of overdose deaths hadn’t increased.

“This is a major milestone for North Carolina but the figures show we have much more work to do to keep people healthy and alive,” Cooper said in a news release.

There were 99 fewer accidental overdose deaths last year, as the fatalities dropped from 1,884 in 2017 to 1,785 in 2018. In addition to roughly 5% fewer deaths, Cooper said, the state also saw 10% fewer emergency room visits for opioid overdoses.

The news Thursday follows a national trend. According to The New York Times, 2018 was the first year the number of overdose deaths nationwide declined since 1990. As in North Carolina, the number of drug deaths fell 5% in 2018, the Times reported.

North Carolina has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. One report, from 2016, named Wilmington as the worst city in the U.S. for opioid abuse, and also named Hickory, Jacksonville and Fayetteville as among the top 25 worst.

But even though the number of deaths declined from 2017 to 2018, the nearly 1,800 people in the state who died from unintentional drug overdoses last year is still far above the roughly 1,300 deaths in 2016.

Cooper said the biggest thing the state could do to further cut the number of overdose deaths would be to help more people get access to health care — specifically, he said, by expanding Medicaid. There are 1 million North Carolinians who don’t have health insurance.

“Medicaid Expansion is the easiest and most effective step our state can take to continue our fight against this deadly disease,” Cooper said in Thursday’s news release.

He has been pushing ever since he became governor in 2017 to expand Medicaid in North Carolina — unsuccessfully, since he needs the Republican-majority General Assembly’s approval. However, the legislature’s GOP leaders have opposed the idea, often citing uncertainty about future costs.

Yet the Democratic governor renewed his push this year, emboldened by the fact that Republicans no longer hold a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly after the elections in 2018.

Cooper vetoed the new state budget drafted by the GOP, which was supposed to go into place last month, to try to force a compromise on Medicaid expansion. And he used Thursday’s news to continue advocating for the plan.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said that while the declining number of deaths and emergency room visits is promising, “we know far too many North Carolina families are still suffering. We must continue to focus on prevention, reducing harm and connecting people to care.”

Doctors in North Carolina are only prescribing about three-fourths the number of pain pills they were as recently as 2017, Cooper’s office said. That could be in part due to the STOP Act the legislature passed that year, which told doctors to start prescribing fewer pills.

Cooper’s office also pointed to two “opioid action plans” the state DHHS put together, in 2017 and again this year, to concentrate on a number of specific issues contributing to the crisis related to pain pills as well as to drugs like as heroin and fentanyl.

A Duke University study published in 2018 found that starting in 2010, heroin replaced prescription painkillers as the opioid drug killing the most North Carolinians.