News: Quick Takes

Emergency management director discusses slow-moving recovery effort

Debris from Hurricane Matthew (Wiki Commons photograph)
Debris from Hurricane Matthew (Wiki Commons photograph)

Lawmakers remain frustrated over the slow pace of disaster relief after Hurricane Matthew devastated southeastern parts of the state more than 1 ½ years ago.

The House Select Committee on Disaster Relief peppered Emergency Management Director Michael Sprayberry during a Monday, April 30, meeting with questions about why many counties have yet to receive federal aid.

“I’m mad, I’m upset, and we can do better,” said Committee Chairman Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne. “I’m just tired of excuses.”

On April 16, the committee hammered Nick Burk, assistant director of the N.C. Emergency Management Division’s Resiliency Section, over the slow recovery progress. Sprayberry was supposed to present at that meeting but canceled because of a medical issue.

Sprayberry on Monday said more than $632 million has been spent on flood insurance payments, repairs for critical public infrastructure, crisis counseling, and construction grants for homeowners and business owners.

“People are getting relief every day,” Sprayberry said. “We are working hard to make good things happen.”

But federal grant money is only now trickling into the affected communities. Five Hazard Mitigation Grants of more than $2 million were approved for Nash, Moore, and Camden counties, and the city of Fayetteville.

The federal government also handed out $236.5 million in Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief, but the first check was only awarded Friday to a homeowner in Robeson County. Home repairs should begin in June.

“No one understands why a year and a half after this disaster we’re only now just getting the first checks out,” Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said.

Sprayberry said the block grant program is an eight-step process requiring homeowners to provide documentation proving eligibility. Site inspections and environmental impact studies must be done before the money is paid.

This is the first time Emergency Management has implemented the CDBG-DR program. In 2016, the General Assembly voted to transfer control of the program from the Department of Commerce to Emergency Management.

“Emergency Management has worked steadfastly to build up its program to distribute this money once individuals are approved, but it is not a function they have been responsible for in the past,” Sadie Weiner, communications director for Gov. Roy Cooper, said in a news release.

Lawmakers questioned whether combining steps could streamline the process. Sprayberry said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development established the eight-step process, so he isn’t sure he can change it.

While several legislators vented irritation over the slow pace, none blamed the General Assembly, Cooper, or the governor’s administration. Instead, lawmakers expressed confidence in Sprayberry and insisted on finding a way to streamline relief efforts.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think you are one of the most capable people in your field,” Rep. John Faircloth, R-Guilford, said. “What concerns me and concerns the rest of us here is the rules you have to play by, the process that you have to follow results in it looking like you’re not getting your job done. What’s holding you back is the rules of the game.”

Faircloth suggested working with federal legislators to make the disaster recovery process more efficient.

“I would like for us to find a way … so that when it’s handed off to you in an emergency we can feel good that you’re going to do your job under better circumstances than you had to do it in this one,” Faircloth said.

[Editor’s note: This story was corrected after initial publication. FEMA has finished reviews and released funds to the state.]