Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday put a price tag on what it will take to at least partially recover from Hurricane Florence, even as a second hurricane threatens North Carolina with more rain and flooding.
The governor released what he said is an early estimate of the damage — $13 billion — and presented a $1.5 billion wish list for recovery funding at a news conference in advance of a special hurricane-funding session of the General Assembly on Monday.
The $13 billion preliminary damage estimate dwarfs the $5 billion incurred in this state in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew and the inflated-adjusted $7 billion to $9 billion of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Cooper laid out a plan to deal with Florence damage that anticipates help from private insurance and the federal government along with the state. Senate leader Phil Berger is reviewing the proposal but said through a spokesman he is optimistic that all parties will continue to work together.
Cooper is proposing to put $750 million in a special fund in the state budget next year as a “down payment” for a wide array of storm relief. Some of that money would come from the state’s rainy-day fund and some from unspent funds in the current budget. Taxes would not be increased, the governor said.
Prompted by the string of recent hurricanes in North Carolina, a new office would be created in the state Department of Public Safety to better focus efforts on “recovery and resiliency” and ensure the state fully uses federal resources. Up to 30 people would ultimately be hired to staff the office, which would be in operation for an anticipated five years at a cost of $10 million a year.
Some people affected by Hurricane Matthew are still waiting for disaster-relief money, two years after that storm flooded parts of Eastern North Carolina.
The bulk of Cooper’s proposed relief spending is aimed at getting displaced people into permanent homes, helping small businesses stay in operation, and helping the state’s hard-hit agriculture industry. There would be an emphasis on rebuilding or creating new neighborhoods in ways that leave them less vulnerable to flooding.
Money would be set aside for immediate repairs of homes, and to pay for 1,000 houses to be bought out and rebuilt on safer ground. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure would be built or repaired with more resilient designs.
A voluntary hog buyout program that applies to farms in a 500-year flood plain would be expanded, and there would be incentives for converting from open waste hog lagoons to cleaner technology.
Mental health programs would be funded at $47 million for Medicaid recipients and the uninsured.
“Florence was an epic storm that brought unprecedented, widespread disasters,” Cooper said at the news conference. “It was like nothing we have ever seen before. Our efforts in recovery must be just as unique and bold. Now it’s time for state government to step up and do our part.”
Helping schools, farms
Earlier this month, Cooper and legislative leaders hashed out an initial infusion of $56.5 million for immediate recovery needs from Hurricane Florence.
Most of that money was set aside as the state’s share of matching federal funding to cover a wide range of measures. That $50 million will pay for flexibility in making up missed classes, extending the voter registration period and substituting storm-damaged polling places.
The rest, $6.5 million, will go to pay school cafeteria workers whose positions are funded by paid meals. Many were unable to get to work, or were at schools that were closed.
Cooper said seven school systems remain closed, 130 schools are not yet re-opened, and nearly 90,000 students are not in class.
State Senate and House members voted unanimously to approve the expedited funding.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told a legislative committee on Monday that he needs more than $300 million to pay for farm loses, including direct payments to farmers who lost crops or livestock. Committee members were noncommittal, the NC Insider reported.
Cooper also proposes more than $300 million for payments to farmers for equipment and crop losses. But his plan would provide just half that amount in the first phase of funding.
Also earlier this week, Cooper moved $25 million from the state lottery fund to speed up school repairs. Cooper’s proposed budget also directs $65 million to school repairs and renovations, funding to replace lost tuition at community colleges, and stipends to help students remain enrolled.
Grants for students
UNC President Margaret Spellings said so-called micro grants could help hurricane-affected students stay in college.
The concept came from the University of Houston, which gave students the same kind of help after Hurricane Harvey. The notion is that students from affected counties — no matter where they’re enrolled — might need help with car repairs, replacing books or bicycles or other needs, Spellings told reporters Wednesday.
The money would be in small increments, up to $500 or so, “that would be available through their institutions for extenuating circumstances,” she said.
Several campuses have also started private fundraising campaigns to help students. UNC Board of Governors Chairman Harry Smith said the goal is to keep students from dropping out due to family or personal crises.
“It’s amazing,” Smith told reporters Wednesday. “Sometimes $100 makes a difference.”
Lawmakers will be working on a new budget after the first of the year, and continued disaster relief spending will continue to be fine-tuned for months. On Wednesday, Berger’s office said he remains optimistic that state agencies will continue to work together.
“We are still reviewing Governor Cooper’s proposal, but all of North Carolina’s state and local government entities have been working together tirelessly over the past few weeks to get North Carolinians recovering from Hurricane Florence the help they so desperately need and we will continue to do so,” spokesman Bill D’Elia said in an email.
“We are hopeful that the experience of dealing with Hurricane Matthew will lead to an improved recovery process this time around.”