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Fix state’s disaster aid problems, don’t play political games

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Republican state lawmakers decided last week to investigate the Cooper administration’s slow response to Hurricane Matthew relief in some of the state’s hardest-hit areas, like this one. That could be a useful exercise, if our legislators use what they find to fix real problems, and they don’t turn this into just another opportunity to deliver political body blows to the Democratic governor.

We fear what we’ll see is the latter. So does the governor.

His spokesman, Ford Porter, told the News & Observer that the decision to investigate was reached at a “sham hearing” because state Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry was at the meeting and wasn’t asked any questions.

“Republican politicians decided that the way to help Matthew survivors is to create another bureaucratic committee while the governor and his administration are focused on actually helping hurricane victims,” Porter said.

So far, he added, nearly $750 million has been distributed for Matthew recovery.

That’s true. But that’s a pittance compared to our still-unmet needs and the federal funding that should be available and in use now. As we learned earlier in the summer, the state still has more than $236 million in federal funding on hand that’s supposed to go into hurricane recovery. We’re coming up on the second anniversary of Matthew’s severe flooding, and the state is still sitting on nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in aid. Whoever may be at fault, it’s clear that this recovery program isn’t going smoothly and it could use some improvement.

State recovery officials attribute the holdup to the many reports and requirements that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development imposes before it will allow the funds to be spent. But Sprayberry has also acknowledged that nobody in his operation has ever before dealt with a disaster of this magnitude. He implied that perhaps the job could have been done more efficiently.

So did state Sen. Danny Earl Britt, a Robeson County Republican, who said last week that he watched across the state line as South Carolina disaster-recovery officials got money with the same restrictions, and they have managed to accomplish a great deal more reconstruction. Robeson County was one of the hardest hit by Matthew’s flooding and recovery there has gone slowly.

Last week, though, HUD approved several key environmental reports from the state that will allow the release of federal disaster grant funds, perhaps as early as this month. That will be great news, when it happens.

But we can’t shake the belief that our state emergency management and disaster recovery bureaucracies weren’t up to the challenge that Matthew delivered. The hurricane brought unprecedented flooding and dramatically changed the definition of what should be included in this state’s floodplains. It also should have forever revised thinking about who needs flood insurance and who doesn’t.

When Hurricane Floyd brought similar flooding to parts of this state in the summer of 1999, it was called a once-a-millennium flood. But less than 20 years later, we experienced one that was even worse. And with catastrophic flooding the new signature of hurricanes (consider Houston), it’s safe to predict that we’ll see another storm like Matthew — or worse — within our lifetimes.

So we hope our legislators can resist the temptation to play politics with problems related to Hurricane Matthew relief, and instead launch a bipartisan project to improve our state’s disaster-response systems. They should work with HUD administrators as well, to find ways of speeding the federal requirements for disaster assistance.

There will be another Matthew. We’ll get clobbered again. When it happens, we need to be better prepared, on every level.

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