As Hurricane Florence bears down on North Carolina, state legislative leaders won’t commit to an immediate emergency session to approve disaster relief funding.
But they also don’t necessarily need one.
The state’s emergency preparedness and response is being directed by Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, and Cooper also has the authority to free up money for immediate relief efforts in the wake of the storm. It’s only longer-term efforts that will require the NC General Assembly or the U.S. Congress to step in and authorize bigger aid packages — which could eventually reach hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe even billions, depending on how destructive Hurricane Florence is.
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“Governor Cooper has the authority to spend emergency funds and shift money from other parts of the state budget as needed to cover disaster-related expenses, and we support the state’s response efforts,” said a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden.
Berger’s spokesman, Pat Ryan, said Wednesday that “it’s too soon to speculate” when exactly the legislature might come back to deal with disaster relief, but he added: “The legislature of course stands ready to clear legal or financial roadblocks, just as we did after Hurricane Matthew.”
In 2016, about two months after Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina in early October, the legislature returned to Raleigh to pass new disaster relief bills — as well as a host of new laws stripping power away from Cooper, a Democrat who just days earlier had defeated the incumbent Republican governor, Pat McCrory, in the 2016 elections.
This year, the legislature already has a session scheduled to begin on Nov. 27. It could be used for disaster relief as well as to write a new voter ID law, if voters approve a constitutional amendment during the Nov. 6 election this year that would require photo ID for in-person voting. Details of the requirement would be left to the legislature, which had its last voter ID law ruled unconstitutional.
But no matter if the disaster relief legislation comes during that upcoming November session or at a different time, one of the General Assembly’s top budget writers said lawmakers learned their lessons from Hurricane Matthew and are already working on drafting legislation for disaster relief — so that it can be passed as soon as possible.
“We will have legislation ready to go, and the great thing is that we have the money saved up and ready to go when we do come back,” said Republican Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, the top NC House budget writer.
He said the budget passed earlier this summer should be praised for expanding the state’s “rainy day fund” emergency reserve to about $2 billion, and for adding an extra $60 million for specific disaster relief efforts that has already gone into effect.
“We’ve been good stewards,” Dollar said. “We have the funds in place. And we’re already working on the legislation for once we determine the size of the needs — and it looks like it’s going to be a lot — to get the disaster relief money flowing.”
The state isn’t the only source of disaster relief money for storm victims, however, with the federal government also responsible for a lot of the funding.
President Donald Trump announced Monday he had declared a state of emergency for the Carolinas, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency said a day later that federal emergency aid would be made available to North Carolina, The News & Observer reported. All 15 of North Carolina’s U.S. representatives and senators had called on the Trump administration for help with Florence, writing that the state’s resources were already strained.
“Since April 2018, North Carolina state and local emergency management agencies have responded to tornado damage in Guilford and Rockingham Counties and major flooding and mudslides in 34 of our western counties,” their letter said. “Hurricane Florence poses an imminent and dangerous threat to North Carolina, and its approach necessitates the state to once again activate the State Emergency Response Team and numerous other state resources.”
Federal aid isn’t always fast, though. Just earlier this month, housing relief money from the federal government started flowing into North Carolina for families affected by Hurricane Matthew two years ago. The Cooper administration directed those first Hurricane Matthew payments to four hard-hit counties stretching from Lumberton to Rocky Mount.
“We’re still in the process of getting things fixed, housing and stuff,” said Emily Jones, a spokesperson for Robeson County, where Lumberton is located. “Some people are still out of permanent housing.”
Mayor Steven Potter of Seven Springs, a Wayne County town on the Neuse River that flooded during Hurricane Matthew, also said his community’s Matthew recovery efforts are still underway, but could now be ruined by Florence.
“We’re getting close to finishing our plan,” he said. “My concern is where we’ll be next week.”
The tiny town is shrinking. It had 175 people during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and 110 when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016. Now there are about 60 people left, he said. But some of the empty properties in town had been getting interest from new buyers, he said, and he hopes Florence doesn’t derail that.
“Slowly but surely people are expressing interest in buying some of those properties and repairing them,” he said. “If we have another severe storm like we did with Matthew, what will be the future of the town after that? I really don’t know.”
While Cooper has been criticized by many Republican state legislators for the state’s two-year-long recovery from Hurricane Matthew, Potter said he’s happy with how the state has handled things.
Meanwhile, Cooper’s office and his Department of Public Safety officials have much to do to prepare people for the incoming storm, and to get the state ready for digging out and making quick rescues and repairs, both during and after the storm.
In preparation for Hurricane Florence, the state has opened up at least 16 emergency shelters, The N&O has reported, and has deployed about 3,000 National Guard troops for the initial response to the storm.
On Tuesday, Cooper ordered the first state-mandated evacuation order in living memory for parts of the coast.
And on Wednesday, he gave a news conference and said North Carolinians need to start preparing for mudslides, flooding, storm surges taller than many beach houses, and several days without power.
“For those not under an evacuation order, finish your preparations today if you haven’t already,” he said, the N&O reported. “Move to safety if your home is at risk – bring in supplies if it’s not. Plan to be without power for days.”