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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was recently in Fayetteville to look at damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in October of 2016, to see what’s been fixed and what hasn’t. Nearly 18 months after the worst flooding in Fayetteville’s history, there’s altogether too much still awaiting repair.
Carson acknowledged that. The federal disaster-relief machine is simply too slow.
“The system that exists can use some improvement,” Carson said, “because it takes so long to get things done.”
Fayetteville City Councilman Larry Wright told Carson that some of his constituents — low-income and elderly — who lost their homes are still waiting for help and don’t expect to get it for several more years. “What’s taking so long?” Wright asked the secretary.
It’s the system, Carson responded. It’s just too slow. He said he had met earlier last week with other federal agency leaders to discuss how to get disaster aid to victims more rapidly.
“What we decided, after our meeting on Monday, is that we need to kind of scrap all these things that have been put in place before, and start all over again,” Carson said. “Because there are a lot of good elements in all the different agencies. But unless they’re coordinated in the right way, it just gets in people’s way.”
Given the lessons that should have been learned in hurricane disasters like Katrina, Sandy and others, we would expect that we would have seen those efficiencies by now. But the federal response to last summer’s hurricanes — and especially the debacle in Puerto Rico, where thousands of people are still without water and electricity — we’d have to conclude that talk about improved disaster-recovery improvement was too much talk and too little action.
Last year’s unusually violent hurricane season is one of the reasons why we’re so far behind in recovering from Matthew here. When the big storms struck Texas and Florida, disaster-assistance funding that we should have gotten was diverted.
There’s a lesson in that, but it’s one that the Trump administration may not want to hear: We’ve entered an era of more violent weather. Conditions in the tropics have created bigger, more powerful hurricanes that are becoming more common. It is, at least in part, a product of the climate change that the current administration continues to forcibly deny. Rejecting the overwhelming consensus of science may make for good populist politics, but it’s not at all helpful in gearing up to deal with the increasingly destructive tropical weather we’re seeing.
There is more relief aid in the pipeline, Carson told Fayetteville officials as he joined Congressman Robert Pittenger on a tour of some formerly damaged sites that have been repaired. North Carolina will soon get another $237 million from HUD. About $35 million of it is coming to Fayetteville and Cumberland County. But it’s still months away, tangled in the red tape of approvals at many levels of government.
Carson was a Republican candidate for the presidential nomination in 2016 and he made clear his disdain for the federal bureaucracy and its almost impenetrable maze of regulations that often seem so pointless. As HUD secretary with significant responsibility for hurricane recovery, he’s seeing the problem firsthand. We hope he’s learning from the experience and will use his hands-on information to streamline the country’s disaster-relief systems.
For the most part, we’ve got the initial emergency-response plan worked out. Even with problems as extensive as we saw last summer, the first waves of relief workers and funding went out quickly and got things done. Lives were saved and people were helped.
But what comes after that isn’t so smooth. The long-term recovery mechanisms are still slow, balky and sometimes unresponsive. A lot of people in this region are counting on Carson to fix that part.