North Carolina residents and communities still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Matthew could soon have access to hundreds of millions more federal dollars – even as state officials demand much more money and brace for the next storm.
This year’s hurricane season started June 1 and there have already been four named storms in the Atlantic. Nine months after Hurricane Matthew hammered eastern and central North Carolina, killing 28 people in the state, emergency personnel are fearing the next one, while still cleaning up the last one.
“My job is to ensure that we’re prepared for whatever threat or hazard is coming up next. It would be horrible if we had another huge hurricane come,” said Mike Sprayberry, the state’s director of emergency management. “We’ve got to be able to hurry up and work with our disaster survivors from Matthew, get them in a good place.”
The state has received more than $630 million in federal money since the monster storm last October, which caused massive flooding and $4.8 billion in damages. Another $500 million in federal dollars should be available by the end of the summer, according to state and federal officials – including nearly $200 million in block grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, just arriving from a pot of money Congress approved in December.
Members of the state’s congressional delegation are confident that the 2018 budget will bring even more relief.
Plus, state lawmakers approved $100 million in disaster relief during this year’s legislative session, on top of $200 million provided in December. Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday signed a measure directing how to spend the latest state money.
“For families recovering from a natural disaster, help can never come too quickly and we’re working hard to make sure communities get the help they need,” Cooper said in a statement. “The $1.3 billion in state and federal relief funds dedicated so far are a start but much more work remains. I will continue to work with the legislature, congressional leaders, and federal officials to bring the resources necessary to help families and communities rebuild.”
Cooper requested $929 million in aid from the federal government’s latest funding bill in April. Congress approved $8.2 billion for emergency and disaster relief as part of the $1 trillion spending deal, but HUD awarded North Carolina only $6.1 million – less than 1 percent of Cooper’s request – setting off a minor partisan squabble in what has been a largely bipartisan effort to deliver dollars for North Carolina.
Cooper, a Democrat, called it “an incredible failure by the Trump administration and congressional leaders to turn their backs.”
“Shame on the governor,” said Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, whose district includes Robeson County and the majority of Cumberland and Bladen counties. “(Cooper) threw us under the bus like we weren’t doing our job.”
A state must show unmet need in order to obtain funds from HUD under requirements implemented in 2011, and North Carolina only recently had its state action plan approved by the federal agency. HUD is reconsidering North Carolina’s request and could add more funding from the April law. Meantime, the approval of the action plan clears the way for HUD to provide the new block grants, 80 percent of which are earmarked for hard-hit Robeson, Cumberland, Edgecombe and Wayne counties.
The rest of the new funding expected this summer comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and includes $200 million more in public assistance for repairing roads and bridges, and $100 million for moving homes out of the way of future flooding – money that has already been designated for specific homes.
Sprayberry said the state could use many millions more dollars in block grants to do hazard mitigation, which is aimed at reducing future loss of life and property in a disaster.
In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, that would mean getting thousands of homes out of the way of future flooding by using a combination of federal and state money to buy out property owners, tear down their former homes and return the land to green space; elevate the homes above anticipated flood levels; or, where no other option is available, tear down badly damaged homes and rebuild them higher.
The state has years of experience in hazard mitigation. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, North Carolina became a national leader in using the program to get people out of harm’s way.
After Matthew, 3,987 homeowners across Eastern North Carolina applied for hazard mitigation grants. About 2,700 of them were found eligible to participate, but even with the $100 million in mitigation funds the state expects to receive, only 788 can be funded.
“We can only take care of the worst cases we have,” Sprayberry said. “That leaves a lot of folks out. So there is still a great unmet need.”
Most of the 788 homes chosen for mitigation so far are in the four counties hardest hit by flooding from the storm: Robeson, Wayne, Edgecombe and Cumberland.
Joseph Young, who lives in Clinton, in Sampson County, applied for a buyout on a second home he has in the county. A relative rents the two-bedroom house, which has less than 700 square feet and sits on a half acre of land that is prone to flood in any good rain. After Hurricane Matthew, Young said, water rose all the way to the floor joists, ruining all the ductwork and some of the insulation, and inundating the air conditioning system.
Young, 76, said he would happily sell for the $49,000 appraised value in order to be rid of the worry. Alternatively, he’d like to get the house elevated. But while the home was eligible for the mitigation program, it wasn’t funded.
“They sent me a letter that said, ‘Not at this time,’ ” Young said.
In some counties, Sprayberry said, no mitigation projects will be funded with the money available so far.
“You’d think we could have at least had one,” said Bladen County Emergency Management Director Bradley Kinlaw. “We had 60 applications. We got zero. We’ve got folks who really need some assistance, and we need to get them squared away.”
In his county, residents living along the South and Black rivers suffered the most, and many had rebuilt after being flooded from Hurricane Floyd. No one thought it could happen twice in 20 years, and certainly, Kinlaw said, no one wants to take a chance on living through that again.
The nearly nine months that have passed since the storm have been hard on those families, Kinlaw said. Many have been paying mortgages on their flooded homes, which they can’t occupy, so they’re also paying rent to stay somewhere else or are staying with friends or family.
“And they have to try to find money to fix up their homes on top of that?” Kinlaw said. “These people are struggling. We’ve got to get them some help.”
Said Pittenger: “You have all these homes that have been abandoned. These are blocks and neighborhoods of homes that have just been left.”
Why so long?
The additional money on its way is certainly welcome, even if everyone – survivors, officials on the ground and lawmakers in D.C. – wish it came quicker.
“The funding is not late,” Sprayberry said. “That’s the process.”
Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, a measure passed to solve an impasse over the debt ceiling, federal agencies must verify a state’s need for disaster relief before providing funding. Previously, Congress could simply appropriate the money. The process involves data collection on the ground in affected areas, putting together reports at the state level and getting it to proper agencies in the federal government, which must analyze the data and deliver the money to the state.
“It’s a slow process. Everybody’s to blame. The bureaucracy is to blame. It just takes too frickin’ long. It’s called CYA. You don’t get a meritorious award by being expeditious. You want to make sure that you don’t get caught and something went wrong and it’s your fault,” Pittenger said. “Everybody’s been overly protective and cautious to make sure that somebody in the bureaucracy doesn’t get a whippin’ with a wet noodle.”
After HUD’s $6.1 million award, some North Carolina lawmakers questioned the formula used by the department and whether HUD had proper data on the Matthew disaster. They requested further review. The agency is now “reviewing additional data” and expects to publish “any changes in the grant amount” soon, a HUD spokesman said in response to a request for more clarity on the status of Matthew relief.
“It’s a disappointment. I’m not trying to gloss over it,” U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said of the $6.1 million allotment.
In the latest dispersal in May, HUD allocated money to Louisiana, West Virginia, Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina for disasters that occurred in 2015 and 2016. The department has more money that it can allocate if North Carolina or other states that show continued unmet needs.
“The Appropriations Committee included extra dollars for North Carolina and other states. It’s sitting there and available, if in fact the state, working with HUD, can verify that the money is needed,” said Rep. David Rouzer, a Johnston County Republican whose 7th District covers Wilmington and much of the southeastern part of the state.
Much of the federal and state money is earmarked for specific uses. For example, the state’s $100 million fund includes $25 million for housing, $30 million for non-residential infrastructure grants, $20 million for agriculture, $2.7 million for community colleges and $22.3 million in federal matching dollars. Those buckets of money are further targeted.
The HUD block grants, however, provide much more flexibility, Rouzer said.
“I’m hoping a good portion can go to Fair Bluff and other small towns in my district and Rep. Pittenger’s district that were so devastated,” Rouzer said. “There are small towns that need a lot of work in terms of water system repair, sewer system repair, community buildings and streets that were wiped out.”
Even with more than $1 billion in federal dollars coming to the state, lawmakers aren’t done trying to secure additional help for victims.
Price, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, introduced an amendment calling for $5 billion for disaster relief for states with unmet needs in the 2018 budget bill. Price’s amendment, part of a larger $200 billion infrastructure amendment, failed on a party-line vote in committee.
New Jersey Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, the committee’s chairman, said he would work to ensure additional financial assistance for North Carolina is in the 2018 budget.
Said Frelinghuysen: “We must stand with these hurting people.”
Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC
What federal aid has North Carolina gotten?
$104.7 million in public assistance (debris removal, emergency services, repairs of roads and bridges)
$97.5 million in individual assistance (help for uninsured or underinsured homeowners and renters up to $33,000, as well as transition assistance such as hotels)
$195.4 million from the National Flood Insurance Program (paid claims)
$100.8 million in Small Business Administration loans (approved amount)
$134 million through U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Transportation and Army Corps of Engineers
What else is North Carolina expected to get this summer?
$200 million in public assistance
$100 million to $114 million in hazard mitigation grants (buyouts, elevations or demolition/reconstruction for damaged homes)
$204 million from Housing and Urban Development in the form of block grants (80 percent of which must be used in Robeson, Cumberland, Edgecombe and Wayne counties), including $198 million from December’s spending bill and $6 million from April’s spending bill