It’s been 19 months since Hurricane Matthew slammed into North Carolina and dropped record-setting rainfall that caused record-setting flooding. Cumberland and Robeson counties were among the worst hit in the state. People are still recovering and rebuilding.
The storm hit nearly 19 months ago, so why are we still looking at such extensive reconstruction and repair? As we move rapidly toward Matthew’s two-year anniversary, shouldn’t we be close to wrapping up the recovery effort? At the very least, shouldn’t repairs to public roads and dams be completed by now? What’s the holdup?
Those were some of the questions members of a legislative panel that monitors Matthew relief had for the state’s Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry recently. The House committee’s members weren’t happy with stories they were hearing about the slow delivery of aid to homeowners, businesses and municipalities. They’re hearing worrisome stories from their constituents who are still struggling to complete repairs, people who are forced to pay a mortgage bill and rent while their houses remain unlivable.
“I’m mad, I’m upset and we can do better,” said Rep. John Bell, the Wayne County Republican who chairs the committee. “We’ve got to fix this. It’s not about who’s wrong or right, it’s not about pointing fingers. It’s not about a blame game. … These are real people, with real lives. I’m just tired of excuses.”
More than $630 million in federal and state funds have already been spent on recovery efforts, but that’s a pittance compared with the $4.8 billion in damage that Matthew caused — especially since so few of the structures damaged were covered by flood insurance, because until Matthew, many of them weren’t considered to be in flood zones.
The state’s disaster-recovery leaders expect eventually to get a total of more than $1.7 billion in federal and state recovery funds. Some of the federal money was held up when, less than a year after Matthew, even more devastating hurricanes raked across Southern states from Florida to Texas, as well as the American Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Money that had been earmarked for Matthew recovery was diverted to relief from the 2017 storms.
Still, even with the money that we did get, the disaster-relief process has been anything but smooth. We’ve seen only a small portion of the $236.5 million in block grants allocated last year by the federal government. What’s gumming up the works? Mostly red tape, it turns out. The money, Sprayberry told the lawmakers, arrived when a newly reorganized state Commerce Department lacked the tools to manage it — the state has never received such a large grant for disaster recovery. So the Division of Emergency Management had to develop an action plan for the money.
Flood victims are still filing applications for the funding, but an eight-step process for low- and middle-income homeowners is imposed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sprayberry said. The first reimbursement check from the grant program was awarded only last month to a Robeson County homeowner. “People are getting relief each and every day sir,” Sprayberry told the committee chair. “We’re working hard to make good things happen.” We’re sure that’s true, but the bottom line isn’t improved by good intentions. Recovery efforts haven’t gone well or promptly.
We hope all these problems become part of a larger plan for moving forward. Given the predictions by many atmospheric scientists of more turbulent tropical weather in years to come, our emergency management leaders need to think big. They need to be ready for a disaster even more extensive than Matthew. And so do federal emergency responders. Last year’s assaults by Harvey, Irma and Maria should have made that point conclusively.
— The Fayetteville Observer