Opinion: Daily Journal

Outsider highlights key concern about pace of N.C. hurricane relief

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

Outside consultants can get a bad rap. Often they deserve it. They might recommend cookie-cutter solutions to problems while failing to account for important, unique local factors.

But the outside voice can play a valuable role as well. It can help clarify a problem that has become bogged down in jargon and bureaucracy.

Such was the case Oct. 22 on Capitol Hill. At the tail end of a U.S. House subcommittee hearing, an Alabama congressman aimed questions at North Carolina’s top emergency management official. Those questions — from a person lacking intimate knowledge of North Carolina’s programs and policies — nonetheless highlighted key concerns about this state’s response to recent natural disasters.

Questions focused specifically on federal funding following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. “One of the issues there was that there were millions of dollars of relief funding that had not gotten to residents of North Carolina,” said Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Alabama. “Is that still the case?”

“Sir, we’re now on pace,” responded Mike Sprayberry, director of N.C. Emergency Management. “We’ve drawn down $27.3 million and have $142.8 million committed. So we’ve made some significant progress. It’s not where we want to be. We want to have all that money out to disaster survivors.”

Palmer ignored the second figure and honed in on the first: relief money actually spent. He then compared that figure to the total appropriation from Congress. “Simple math: $27 million from $236 [million] would be $209 million — three years after a disaster,” Palmer said.

“I can’t understand why three years after a disaster we’re still sitting on more than $200 million when there are people in desperate need for it,” he added.

“That’s a great point, sir,” Sprayberry replied. “I would tell you that when the money was awarded to us, we didn’t have the capacity to basically execute the grant. We didn’t have anybody that was trained and that knew how to do it.”

The new N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency meets that need, Sprayberry explained. Forty-five “highly trained individuals” help the state manage the federal money more efficiently, he said.

That answer didn’t ease Palmer’s mind. “Again, you just told me you’re sitting on $209 million,” he said. “What’s the timeline? I’d love to know what the holdup is. If the money is under the control of the state of North Carolina, I mean, are there still federal regulations that are tying your hands?”

“No, I would say that we are working with all the projects to get them out and making sure that we are fully meeting all the eligibility criteria,” Sprayberry responded. He reminded Palmer and the rest of the subcommittee that Hurricanes Florence, Michael, and Dorian all have hit North Carolina since Matthew.

“A lot of different funding pots and lot of money going out there,” Sprayberry said. “We haven’t received the $168 million in mitigation yet. We haven’t received the $336 million in Florence money. So we’re still working with the Matthew money. And so we’re totally focused on that.”

There was one more question. “Has any of that money been spent on anything other than relief from Hurricane Matthew?”

“It’s Hurricane Matthew only, sir.”

“OK, but you’re waiting on funding for these other hurricanes — Florence, Michael, and Dorian?”

Done with his questions, Palmer summarized his concerns. “This is something that really bothers me,” he told his committee colleagues. “We fund these projects. The money doesn’t get spent. Another storm hits. We appropriate more money. And we don’t know yet what’s been done to mitigate and provide relief from the previous storms.”

“It sounds like we’re piling money on top of money,” Palmer added. “I think this might be something we want to take a deeper dive into a little later on. I’m not satisfied with the answers that I’m getting.”

“Three years after a storm, there’s still over $200 million that hasn’t been spent, and there’s requests for more money,” he concluded. “This is not just a North Carolina problem. This is going on other places as well.”

Palmer has no reason to hold detailed knowledge about this state’s emergency management apparatus. He certainly has less information about circumstances on the ground here than a North Carolina colleague. Fellow committee member Rep. David Rouzer’s 7th N.C. Congressional District includes Wilmington and other Southeastern N.C. communities vulnerable to hurricane damage.

But Rouzer used his committee time to focus on the bureaucratic process of hurricane relief. He asked Sprayberry for suggestions about improving federal and state government interactions.

That’s important stuff. The federal disaster relief process needs reform.

But it was the outsider, Palmer, who hit on the key issue for most taxpayers: What’s happening to all that money?

It’s a question that needs good answers. That’s if North Carolina expects the feds to continue paying hurricane-related bills in the future.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.