Last week, Congress passed a bill that included over $15 billion in disaster relief funding dedicated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The bill, which included another provision that extends the debt-ceiling for three months, is in response to a cry from FEMA officials earlier this week who warned that the agency could run out of funds as soon as this weekend. The legislation, which awaits the president’s signature, includes $7.4 billion dedicated to Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana, another $7.4 billion for community block grants, and $450 million towards Small Business Administration (SBA) loans for damaged businesses.
Although 90 House and 17 Senate Republicans voted against the bill, largely on the grounds of extending the debt ceiling, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that funding disaster recovery efforts in light of Harvey and ahead of Hurricane Irma is a priority.
This action signals a welcome departure from previous stances Congress has taken toward funding disaster recovery. A recent Slate article details the typical contradiction in lawmakers’ attitudes towards federal disaster relief. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit, then-Rep. Mike Pence expressed his hesitancy in providing disaster relief without spending cuts. In 2012, following Superstorm Sandy, lawmakers in both chambers threatened to withhold relief funding by tying the recovery bill to $17 billion worth of spending cuts.
The way our state and nation are bearing the financial and human costs of natural disasters is drastically changing. In just over the past 30 years, we have seen a significant increase in billion-dollar disasters. In North Carolina, in particular, these events will have disproportionate and catastrophic impacts of many of our poorest and rural communities. And yet without a commitment to investments over the long-term to prepare and plan for these costs, we will be leaving communities aside
After almost a year, Eastern NC is still not whole
Lawmakers have been inconsistent in funding unmet needs for those impacted by natural disasters and have neglected to have serious conversations about ensuring that infrastructure exists to minimize future devastation. This could not be more evident than here in North Carolina where the state was awarded only 1 percent of a $929 million aid request to support recovery and rebuilding efforts for Hurricane Matthew.
It is hopeful that in this emerging bipartisan commitment to helping communities recover, Eastern NC will finally receive some badly needed support. According to the NC Insider, nearly a year after Hurricane Matthew flooded much of the eastern part of the state, almost 3,000 families are still waiting to be bought out of their damaged and flood-prone homes. The state, however, only has enough funding to buy out one-third of the properties. Additionally, only a small number of businesses have received SBA loans and the state lacks funding needed to support low-income homeowners in need of repairs. The estimated unmet need in the region according to state officials is $450 to $600 million.
We should applaud lawmakers for stepping up and choosing to support communities in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Irma. But if we hope to build a stronger and more resilient North Carolina, we’ll need more than just disaster relief; we’ll need the investments and choices that ensure everyone, regardless of where they live or how much money they make, live in safe and thriving communities.
Brian Kennedy II is a Public Policy Fellow with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.