The calm amid the storm of North Carolina politics is enduring. That's good news for the tens of thousands of North Carolinians still suffering from the fury of Hurricane Florence.
Meeting in special session, the North Carolina General Assembly voted unanimously Monday night to spend $850 million for Hurricane Florence relief. Nearly $400 million of that funding was allocated to specific North Carolina state departments and is available immediately. Legislators will determine in coming months how the remaining $450 million will be spent.
(The money is available because the General Assembly wisely built a $2 billion rainy-day fund for situations exactly like this. That is an example of the good governance the North Carolina state constitution mandates.)
Of course, no one knows how much money will ultimately be needed to get hurricane-battered areas well on their way to a full recovery. But the passage of the 2018 Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Act was a good first step, both in the amount allocated and the speed in which the General Assembly got the legislation written and enacted.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bill Tuesday morning and, in a news release, thanked legislators for "responding quickly and taking this initial step to help North Carolinians recover from this devastating storm ...."
One of our biggest priorities for relief efforts by the state is the North Carolina public school system. Pender County schools are closed again this week, but the school district does anticipate students returning this Monday and Tuesday. In Onslow County, Superintendent Rick Stout expects schools to reopen for students in phases, from Oct. 24 to Nov. 5. Craven County hopes to have all students back in school this week.
Many school buildings were badly damaged, many by water, leading to widespread mold contamination. Environmental engineers are painstakingly testing facilities for mold spore levels, and students can return only when a certification of clearance is issued. The legislation passed Monday provides $60 million to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to help repair and renovate damaged schools.
Another hard-hit group is the state's farmers. Hurricane Matthew was bad enough for folks who make their living off the land, but when the storm made landfall on Oct. 8, 2016, many crops had been harvested. When Florence arrived, agriculture officials say, harvests had barely begun. The Florence Recovery Act adds $70 million to a special Hurricane Florence disaster fund at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Another important aspect of the legislation will occur behind the scenes: The act provides for a host of administrative changes and waivers, such as expanding eligibility for certain programs that already are in place and waiving various fees and moratoriums.
One part of the recovery effort we are concerned about (and hope our leaders are, too) is the number of people who still cannot return their homes or had to leave them well after the hurricane hit.
For example, two weeks after Florence struck, The Glen apartments in Wilmington abruptly announced it was closing down and evicting all tenants due to storm damage and mold growth. The same thing has happened in other apartment complexes throughout Wilmington and elsewhere. An official with the American Red Cross said there are few places for people to go.
We hope that relief officials from both the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency don't let these folks fall through the cracks simply because their hurricane problems didn't begin until weeks after the storm. It will be important for local officials and others with up-close knowledge of such situations to keep pressure on state and federal agencies to respond.
Meanwhile, it seems that most people involved in the recovery acknowledge that the legislation passed Monday is only a start and that it's critical for the governor and legislature to continue to work together closely.
As pleased as we are with the funding to help the state recover from what might prove to be its worst natural disaster in history, we also are delighted to see leaders in Raleigh put the political fighting on hold in order to help the people they are elected to serve.
Unlike the stronger, bigger and wetter storms being predicted, that trend of bipartisanship is something we could use a lot more of.
ALLOCATION OF NORTH CAROLINA HURRICANE RECOVERY FUNDS:
—Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: $70 million
—Community Colleges System: $18,500,000
—Department of Environmental Quality: $4 million
—Department of Health and Human Services: $12 million
—Housing Finance Agency: $10 million
—Department of Insurance: $930,477
—Department of Public Instruction: $60 million
—Department of Public Safety: $100 million
—Office of Budget and Management: $25 million
—Department of Transportation: $65 million
—University of North Carolina Board of Governors: $33 million
REPRINTED FROM THE NEW BERN SUN JOURNAL