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State lawmakers’ response to Hurricane Florence is an inadequate first step

In this morning’s special session, the NC House and Senate both passed the Hurricane Florence Emergency Response Act. The storm, which hit the North Carolina coast on Sept. 14, resulted in 39 deaths, power losses for 880,000 people, over 5,200 emergency rescues and evacuations, more than 1,600 road closures, and the displacement of thousands.

The bill, which is a first step, appropriates a total of $56.5 million in funding to help communities recover. In addition to funding recovery efforts, the bill extends the voter registration period in impacted counties to Oct. 15, and states that Historically Underutilized Businesses should be prioritized vendors for recovery funding.

Although we do not yet have a total dollar figure on the amount of damage caused by the storm, the $56.5 million figure is clearly less than what is actually needed based on what we do know. It also fails to create certainty for North Carolina communities that the state will be willing to invest in their rebuilding efforts. The uncertainty that lingers over the eastern part of the state makes it difficult for families and business to plan their own rebuilding efforts. That certainty, that funding will be and is available to embark on projects to rebuild, is a clear lesson from disaster efforts in North Carolina and across the country.

Hurricane Matthew, another 500-year storm which hit the eastern part of North Carolina just two years ago, caused $2.4 billion in damage and $2 billion in lost economic activity. The General Assembly’s initial disaster recovery funding bill in 2016 was for $200.9 million. And, in fits and starts, they returned to commit dollars to the effort which made for uneven planning and deployment of funds that contributed to delays in rebuilding.

Of the $56.5 million dedicated to Florence relief, $6.5 million will go directly to the Department of Public Instruction in order to compensate school lunch employees who are hourly and lost wages due to school closures. This is an excellent use for disaster recovery funding. Getting money into the hands of workers, many of whom are low wage, will ensure that local economies have the ability to bounce back and that individuals are shielded from the double burden of losing property and wages.

The remaining $50 million in appropriation, however, is not designated. State lawmakers plan to use a significant portion of the remaining dollars as a state match for any federal disaster assistance they may receive. It is a requirement to secure the federal funds and it will just supplement federal commitments not address the gaps that federal commitments often present in rebuilding work.

So what does this mean for our neighbors?

It means that although lawmakers have built up a Rainy Day Fund of $2 billion, as well as leaving $500 million in revenues last year unappropriated, they will choose to spend a tiny amount of state dollars in helping hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who have been displaced and whose lives have been turned upside down.

It seems that rather than leading, our leaders will sit and wait for the federal government to help while their constituents sit in shelters. If lawmakers should have learned anything from Hurricane Matthew, it’s that the federal government will not do their jobs for them. Just two years ago, after waiting for six months to hear from the Trump administration regarding a $930 million disaster relief request, North Carolina was told it would only receive $6.1 million.

We cannot wait. The families who are displaced, workers who are out of work, small businesses who are losing revenue, and farmers who have lost crops cannot wait.

Rather than waiting, we must commit the dollars that we have available now to build a robust plan for a resilient eastern North Carolina: a plan that recognizes the importance of a range of immediate service needs — from temporary housing to food access to legal services — and supports families, small businesses and farms to address their losses in housing, profits and product; a plan that focuses on making sure that everyone is served regardless of who they are, what language they speak or where they live and that services are accessible to people have been displaced and have limited resources; a plan that puts people at the center of planning and decision-making to strengthen the systems that monitor our water quality and environmental contaminants, encourage affordable housing development outside of floodplains, and build the institutional infrastructure to create thriving communities with good, quality jobs and sustainable businesses.

State lawmakers have the tools, the resources and know-how to lead a recovery that is not only adequate and equitable, but builds and invests in resilient communities that are stronger than ever before.

Brian Kennedy II is a Policy Analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

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State lawmakers’ response to Hurricane Florence is an inadequate first step