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At Camp Lejeune, families long for safer housing

A new access control complex at Camp Lejeune features a gate entrance with a canopy over traffic as well as other security improvements.

DAMANY COLEMAN/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX | The Washington Post | Published: October 6, 2018

Families living on one of the Marine Corps' largest bases are ramping up criticism of the private company that manages their homes, saying it is ignoring long-standing problems with mold and structural defects that were exacerbated after Hurricane Florence slammed North Carolina last month.

Even before the hurricane unleashed devastation across the Carolinas, several spouses were working to draw attention to what they called a lackadaisical attitude by Atlantic Marine Corps Communities about the conditions inside Camp Lejeune's private housing - from leaky and crumbling ceilings to 70-foot-tall rotting trees in danger of collapsing.

Many of those trees did fall, they said, as the storm struck parts of North Carolina with fast-moving floods and powerful winds. Camp Lejeune is on the coast, close to where the hurricane rushed ashore.

The storm exacerbated other housing problems, said Tori Sproat, who has lived on the base with her husband - a Marine major - and two young children since 2013. She said her bedroom's rain-soaked, bubbling ceiling was made far worse by Hurricane Florence.

Sproat and other spouses have taken to Facebook in frustration to draw attention to moldy walls and the trees they say have been infested with carpenter ants for years, posting letters, photos and videos they have sent to the company.

"It's been a long time coming. We deserve better, and we know the Marine Corps wants us to have better, too," Sproat said.

In an emailed statement sent to The Washington Post, Atlantic Marine Corps Communities wrote that, "Based on initial assessments, more than 1,238 of the homes at Camp Lejeune had some level of interior damage to include water intrusion. There were an additional 139 severely damaged homes from fallen trees and debris."

The statement added that "AMCC North Carolina residents who wish to relocate from their home are able to do so without penalty for the duration of storm recovery operations. AMCC has partnered and coordinated recovery efforts with certified contractors, in addition to our maintenance team, to assess homes for damages."

"One of our top priorities is currently assessing the damage that has occurred as a result of Hurricane Florence," the company says on its website. "Damages will be prioritized for safety, with the most severe and pressing cases being addressed first."

In a statement provided through Marine Corps public affairs specialist Victoria Long, the company said, "Residents have multiple options to raise concerns to AMCC management and military leadership if they have persistent issues that are not addressed."

The housing concerns are not limited to the company's management or Camp Lejeune. A Navy spouse in Gulfport, Mississippi, is helping organize an effort to document housing problems in at least six states on eight bases with serious mold problems "that are not being handled properly," she said, including in Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

She and half a dozen other military spouses who spoke to The Post about the housing concerns asked not to be named because they fear retaliation by the military.

Military bases began privatizing housing management in 1996 in an effort to improve hazardous, dilapidated conditions. The Defense Department owned approximately 257,000 family housing units worldwide at the time, both on and off base. Because of budgetary constraints, more than 50 percent of them needed to be renovated or replaced because they were outdated or insufficiently maintained, according to the department.

The spouses say the problems persisted since private companies took control, and in some cases, they have gotten worse.

Reuters has been examining safety and environmental hazards faced by U.S. military families living on bases, including cases of childhood lead poisoning that lead to cancer and other serious health problems.

"At Lejeune, some families described encountering troubles that reporters observed at other bases: lags in maintenance responses by private contractors that stir worries over health," the news service reported.

Sproat said there are fallen trees throughout Camp LeJeune, some crushing homes, and some families have lost all their belongings.

In a telephone interview, a woman living at Camp Lejeune said the ceiling in her infant daughter's room collapsed in March 2016, and there was a gushing leak in the living room. At 8 months old, her daughter was on albuterol, a prescription drug for the treatment of asthma, and had to use a nebulizer to help deliver medication for her respiratory issues.

"She had a tiny oxygen mask- it was just sad," she said. The woman asked to remain anonymous because she didn't want to negatively impact her husband's career.

"I have been a thorn in AMCC's side ever since," she said. "We went to the media because we want them to be held accountable."

She said it isn't the pace of Hurricane Florence repairs that she's concerned about.

"It's the long standing problems they never address - maybe to cut corners or save money," she said.

Sproat said she feels private housing companies "are doing the bare minimum in terms of maintenance," she said, "and the Marine Corps has their hands tied. They can't order AMCC or other private housing companies around the way they can with their lieutenants."

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