The House Appropriations Committee approved a major disaster relief bill today that includes $5 million for the state to recover from “future events,” but the top emergency management official said that amount won’t be enough.
“It’s a placeholder,” said Mike Sprayberry, director of the Division of Emergency Management. “It’s an estimate to take action now.”
With major hurricanes now becoming routine in North Carolina, he said, “we’ll likely come back to the legislature for more.”
There will likely be another disaster relief bill to account for the damage from Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Outer Banks last week.
About a quarter of the $100 million is earmarked for grants to local governments for a variety of storm damage repairs from Hurricane Florence, which occurred a year ago: County courthouses, creek dredging, building demolition and wastewater treatment plants.
Greensboro also would receive $1 million for recovery projects related to a tornado outbreak that slammed the city in April 2018.
The Department of Environmental Quality would receive $22.7 million. About a third would be used for shoring up disaster-related infrastructure, such as water and wastewater treatment plants; coastal management planning and dam safety.
DEQ’s Coastal Mitigation Fund would receive $11.5 million for grants to local governments. However, the provision’s language is expected to be clarified. Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said she was concerned that the grants could be used for hardened structures, such as terminal groins, along the coastline. Hardened structures can harm aquatic life and habitats; nor do they last as long as “living shorelines” –– those that use natural materials for protection.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County, agreed, saying that hardened structures should not be installed “under the guise of disaster relief.”
The Division of Emergency Management would receive $2 million to develop a pilot program to help pay for the cost of up to two years’ worth of flood insurance for eligible applicants and properties in distressed areas.
Applicants can earn no more than 80 percent of the area median income during the preceding calendar year; the property must be the applicant’s primary residence, is insurable, and has “experienced a repetitive loss” as defined by FEMA.
Harrison noted that in some coastal areas the median income is high, which could circumvent the intent of the legislation: to help low-income households get flood insurance. Harrison suggested pegging the income eligibility to the federal poverty threshold.
For example, in Sunset Beach the median annual household income is nearly $57,000, above the state median of $50,000. Thirty-seven percent of the 1,851 households earn more than $75,000 a year, according to census figures. Just 4.3 percent live at or below the federal poverty threshold.
McGrady said only primary residences would be eligible for flood insurance help. “This is an incentive for people to get flood insurance, not to subsidize their vacation homes.”
North Carolina has sustained billions of dollars in losses from four hurricanes in the past three years: Matthew in 2016, Florence and Michael in 2018, and now Dorian — with about two more months of hurricane season remaining.
These losses have prompted some academics, urban planners and even coastal officials to consider buyouts of particularly vulnerable properties. About $8 million would be funneled to the State Acquisition and Relocation Fund, which provides gap funding for buyouts and to move families out of flood plains.
However, the bill contains no appropriations to pay for additional buyouts of swine farms in the flood plain. Although there have been five rounds of buyouts since 1999, more than 100 farms and their open-pit waste lagoons still lie within a 100-year flood plain; even more remain in the 500-year flood plain.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told lawmakers earlier this year that he opposes further buyouts unless existing farms can either expand or move to new locations — currently prohibited under the state’s 20-year moratorium.
A 100-year flood plain means that there is a 1 percent chance in any given year that the area will flood. A 500-year flood plain is defined as an area where there is a 0.2 percent chance of an annual flood event.