North Carolina Bill Gives Storm Aid, Focus on Resilience

“Resiliency and mitigation is a larger part of this bill than similar bills we’ve taken up,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, who later characterized the effort as a “pivot.”

by Adam Wagner, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) / October 31, 2019
Emerald Isle town employees work to clear the road after a tornado hit Emerald Isle, N.C., as Hurricane Dorian moved up the East Coast on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. AP/Tom Copeland

(TNS) — A $258 million disaster relief effort approved Wednesday by the House Appropriations Committee represents a shift in how the state approaches such legislation, according to one of its sponsors.

“Resiliency and mitigation is a larger part of this bill than similar bills we’ve taken up,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, who later characterized the effort as a “pivot.”

The Storm Recovery Act of 2019, House Bill 1023, addresses recovery efforts for four different storms that have hit North Carolina since 2016 — Hurricanes Matthew, Michael, Florence and Dorian. While the bill includes several proposals to fund resilience efforts throughout the state, the largest portion of the bill provides additional money for a dwindling fund used to provide matching dollars on Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance projects.

McGrady said Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has recently told legislators the pots of money providing a 25% match for FEMA public assistance projects for Florence, Matthew and Michael run out by the end of November. The bill includes $70.8 million for Florence matches, $11.2 million for Matthew and $4.2 million for Michael.

“That really is what is pushing the bill,” McGrady said.

N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said the state has provided about $73.7 million in matching funds for Florence so far, $40 million for Matthew and $1.3 million for Michael. The main reasons for the need for more Florence matching funds, Sprayberry said, are that North Carolina is spending existing funds faster than anticipated and that initial public damage estimates of $600 million to $700 million have almost doubled to about $1.3 billion.

While it’s typical for damage estimates to rise, Sprayberry said, “We’ve never had a storm that was as costly as Florence.”

The legislation also includes funds to help with the recovery from September’s Hurricane Dorian, which had a particularly severe impact on Ocracoke. A $17.8 million appropriation would help provide public matches for Dorian recovery while also funding the state individual assistance program state emergency management launched after FEMA denied North Carolina’s request for individual assistance.

Rep. Bobby Hanig, a Powells Point Republican who represents Ocracoke, said the island is in “extreme need” and added it is important the state consider resilience as part of recovery.

To that end, the bill includes $40 million for the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), with $20 million helping local governments in their recovery from 2016’s Matthew and $10 million providing grants to Dorian-impacted local governments. The final $10 million would be used to hire as many as 24 resilience experts placed in councils of government and local governments throughout the state, with the goal of developing regional resilience plans.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Laura Hogshead, NCORR’s chief operating officer, said the employees would “help the local communities develop a more regional plan that is implementable — not just a plan that is going to sit on the shelf, but a plan that could be implemented for future resiliency.”

That request, Hogshead added, is based on feedback NCORR staff received from local governments, who often want to pursue resilience efforts but lack the manpower or expertise to think about flooding and other disasters regionally. North Carolina officials further grasped the possibility of a regional approach to flooding earlier this year during a trip to the Iowa Flood Center.

“This is a watershed conversation,” Hogshead said, “it’s not just a county-by-county conversation.”

The resilience expert positions would be time-limited, which typically means they expire after three years. Other time-limited resilience positions in the bill include four full-time planners who would help develop and implement strategies in the state’s 20 coastal counties.

Earlier this year, the legislature’s Performance Evaluation Division reviewed North Carolina’s administration of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds from Hurricane Matthew. At the time of the report, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development categorized North Carolina as a “slow spender” of the funds, a designation that changed to “on pace” in October.

The legislative report made several recommendations about the administration of CDBG-DR funds that are included in the bill, including regular reporting and asking NCORR to recommend how many staff should be switched from the time-limited three-year roles to permanent positions.

Other significant appropriations in the bill include $32 million to make laser-mapped topographic maps of the state more granular; $4.8 million for water level and breach monitoring systems for 1,510 high and intermediate risk dams; and $2 million apiece to the N.C. Department of Transportation to build living shorelines, expand the state’s Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network for Transportation and a study of flood vulnerability on the state’s Strategic Highway Corridor System.

Rep. John Bell, a Goldsboro Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “This bill is a step in the right direction to where we can not only be a leader in before the storm, during the storm and after the storm, but a leader in resiliency and recovery.”

Adam Wagner’s reporting is financially supported by Report for America/GroundTruth Project and The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, a component fund of the North Carolina Community Foundation. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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