News: Quick Takes

New NCGA oversight subcommittee will review delays in Matthew relief

Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, tells the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations at a meeting Wednesday, Aug. 29, money allocated for Hurricane Matthew recovery is at risk of being recalled because it is not being spent. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, tells the Joint Legislative Commission on Government Operations at a meeting Wednesday, Aug. 29, money allocated for Hurricane Matthew recovery is at risk of being recalled because it is not being spent. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

A new General Assembly subcommittee will figure out why progress on Hurricane Matthew recovery has been slower here than in neighboring states.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Governmental Operations heard Wednesday, Aug. 29, from a handful of lawmakers who voiced concerns with delays in aiding communities hit by the storm nearly two years ago. The storm caused 26 deaths and more than $1.5 billion in damage in North Carolina alone.

“Our questions are simple: What has the governor been doing for 573 days?” Sen. Danny Earl Britt Jr., R-Robeson, asked.

Since Hurricane Matthew ravaged eastern North Carolina in October 2016, more than $740 million in federal, state, and local funds have gone to recovery efforts. But the heart of the issue is with the Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Relief, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD has awarded more than $230 million in CDBG-DR grants — with $168 million expected to be awarded soon — but so far only $1.8 million has been released. Robeson County is the only county to see any CDBG-DR money.

The North Carolina Emergency Management Agency administers the program. It’s the first time the agency has had this responsibility. Before Matthew struck, the N.C. Department of Commerce had authority. Then the General Assembly handed the reins over to NCEM.

“The biggest fear of hurricane victims is that they will be forgotten,” Rep. John Bell, R-Craven, said.

Republican legislators repeatedly said the hearing was not political or to assign blame, but their Democratic colleagues didn’t seem convinced.

“It seems to me that this committee is about delving into blame and we’re doing a very good job of that today,” Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake said.

Jackson said it didn’t make sense NCEM Director Mike Sprayberry wasn’t given the opportunity to answer questions at the hearing even though he was present.

Senate leader Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the purpose of the meeting was to determine whether a subcommittee was needed. Berger said the subcommittee would be a better forum for state officials to answer questions. The subcommittee can hire outside investigators and subpoena records.

Cooper’s office didn’t take kindly to the new investigatory committee.

“This sham hearing was an embarrassing use of the legislature’s time,” Cooper’s spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement after the hearing.

“Republican politicians decided that the way to help Matthew survivors is to create another bureaucratic committee while the Governor and his administration are focused on actually helping hurricane victims,” Porter said.

General Assembly leadership said the subcommittee was necessary because many hurricane victims are still waiting for relief and questions are unanswered. Legislators also wanted to know why the administration tried to alter the evaluation of a multimillion-dollar bid for recovery efforts, as a WBTV investigation uncovered.  

“Governor Cooper has avoided further explanation for months, and that only adds to the appearance of wrongdoing,” Berger said in an emailed statement. “We hope there were no serious legal or ethical lapses, but the subcommittees and its investigators will use all of the power vested in them to find the truth.”