In a one-day special session, the legislature passed what is likely to be the first of several disaster relief bills related to Hurricane Florence. Both the Senate and the House voted unanimously for a bill that provides flexibility in the school calendar for counties hit by the hurricane and provided compensation for school employees who otherwise might not get paid while schools are closed in hurricane-affected areas. Senate Bill 2 [School Calendar & Pay/Hurricane Florence] also allowed certain college students who are enrolled in an education preparation program and who are affected by Hurricane Florence to have the clinical internship requirement of the program deemed completed.
House Bill 4 [Hurricane Florence Emergency Response Act] creates the Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund and appropriates $56.5 million to the Fund, of which $6.5 million is to supplement or replace lost compensation of school lunch employees due to school closures. Regarding elections, the bill extends certain deadlines related to voter registration and allows local election boards to alter the location of early voting sites. The bill also expresses the legislature’s intent to prevent adverse public health impacts related to the emergency of large populations of floodwater mosquitoes and waives certain DMV fees in hurricane-affected counties. Again, this bill was adopted unanimously.
The Governor quickly signed both bills, and work has now begun on another disaster relief package that will be considered by the legislature at a special session on October 15.
One might wonder why the legislature would have to come back in two weeks. Why didn’t the legislature simply appropriate whatever monies are needed to repair buildings, provide housing, and address agricultural losses? The answer is it takes time to assess the losses related to the hurricane. The Cooper Administration, state agencies like the Department of Agriculture, emergency management agencies and local governments are still determining losses. Basically, there was consensus between the governor and legislative leaders on the need for additional time to assess the losses.
The legislature is moving to address losses relating to Hurricane Florence quicker than was done following Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Matthew. With respect to those hurricanes, it was several months before the legislature appropriated disaster relief. Both the Cooper Administration and the legislature have learned from the recent experience with Hurricane Matthew.
So what comes next?
State Budget Director Charles Perusse provided a broad outline of the areas that may need funding when he spoke to the Senate and House Joint Appropriations about the first disaster relief bills. He said the Administration would be looking at the following areas: Housing, Agriculture, Business, State and Local Infrastructure, Education (infrastructure and operations), Transportation, Natural Resources (includes environment, health and resiliency), Health and Human Services, and Utilities and Recovery Operations. What Director Perusse suggests might need funding is similar to what was funded following Hurricanes Floyd and Matthew.
In fact, if one wants to see what might next be funded, one need only look at the first disaster relief bill relating to Hurricane Matthew, House Bill 2 [Disaster Recovery Act of 2016]. A little over two months after Hurricane Matthew, the legislature appropriated nearly $200 million for housing, resilient redevelopment planning, state matching funding for federal disaster relief programs, small business loans, infrastructure construction (water, sewer, sidewalks, storm drainage), and cleanup operations.
People should expect that the legislature will include additional Hurricane Florence-related funding in future legislation. The legislature is schedule to come back after Thanksgiving, and another disaster relief bill could be introduced then. As with Matthew, the budget next year is likely to include funding related to the hurricane. Following Matthew, the next two budget bills included another $160 million for housing, community colleges, stream debris removal, river gauges, search and rescue equipment and emergency response equipment.
The first monies appropriated for each successive hurricane generally address actual losses related to the hurricane. However, once those losses are addressed, it is likely that funding will be directed at avoiding losses due to future hurricanes or natural disasters. The emergency management folks refer to this as “hazard mitigation,” and they mean things like buying houses, raising houses, and other specific real estate and infrastructure from flooding. Another word that gets used is “resiliency.”
After Hurricane Matthew, the Division of Emergency Management sought funding for detailed mapping of topography and buildings, and additional river gauges to provide real-time water level data. They requested supplemental mapping of new flood hazard areas post-Matthew, supplemental mapping of urban areas subject to flooding, and mapping of water routes in the event of dam breaches.
After Florence, my expectation is that we’ll see similar requests from the Division of Emergency Management. There is broad support for getting people out of harm’s way, and, having reconstructed portions of Princeville, Fair Bluff and other towns after hurricanes, my suspicion is there will be more interest in funding buyout programs.
There is also interest in moving some swine operations out of floodplains and closing manure lagoons in high-risk floodplains. There is already a state program addressing that, but it is oversubscribed. The back-to-back hurricanes have also demonstrated the vulnerabilities of our aging electric infrastructure, and I’d expect to see proposals to address that.
Each hurricane causes unique damages. Hurricane Florence has apparently caused more damage to schools than Hurricane Matthew, but both hurricanes impacted community college enrollment. In the two weeks since Hurricane Florence, it is clear various hospitals were impacted. No monies were allocated for hospitals following Matthew.
The bottom line is that recovery from a major hurricane takes years, and one can expect the legislature will appropriate monies for Hurricane Florence-related issues over the next two years.
With over $2 billion in the so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” North Carolina is well positioned to address the natural disaster. Why have a rainy day fund, if one doesn’t use it to address the damages caused by lots of rain? Unlike when Governor Jim Hunt had to reallocated funds from other areas of the budget to address damages from Hurricane Floyd, Governor Cooper shouldn’t need to raid other budget areas to address Hurricane Florence-related losses or needs.