Legislature, Cooper make headway on hurricane recovery, but vexing longer-term issues loom

Legislature, Cooper make headway on hurricane recovery, but vexing longer-term issues loom

- in Environment, Top Story
A flooded neighborhood in Jacksonville, photographed Sept. 19, 2018, five days after Hurricane Florence battered southeastern North Carolina. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

The legislature expedited its first round of disaster relief funding for the state’s critical recovery needs after Hurricane Florence, but the more complex portion of the aid package — environmental resilience — could run into political roadblocks.

Although less ambitious than the governor’s proposed $1.5 billion budget, the General Assembly’s initial outlay of $400 million focuses on “immediate needs,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee, last night. This includes emergency grants and projects that can receive federal matching dollars — construction of affordable housing, repairs to damaged public schools and colleges, mental health services, as well as aid to small or rural hospitals that are unaffiliated with larger health systems.

Earlier this month, the legislature appropriated an additional $56 million for education expenses, specifically to pay teachers and staff whose schools closed because of storm damage. Lawmakers are expected to allocate their second round of disaster funding, another $400 million, in November.

“The legislation today is a historic response to a historic crisis,” Dollar said. Lawmakers transferred money to disaster relief from the savings reserve, the N.C. Education Lottery, the highway fund and monies designated for navigation channel dredging.

The bill, which was ratified by both chambers last night, also appropriates $2 million to create the Office for Resilience and Recovery, which the governor had proposed. The office will operate under the Department of Public Safety. It could employ as many as 45 people, two-thirds of them temporary employees.

The recovery part of that office’s charge is to coordinate the financial bureaucracy of the Florence relief, to try to avoid the delays that still vex the disbursement of Hurricane Matthew funds from two years ago. It will be an enormous task.

The governor’s office estimated storm-related damages could total $13 billion. Of that amount, $7.1 billion is not covered by private insurance or federal aid. To close that gap, Gov. Roy Cooper plans to ask the federal government for another $3.4 billion.

“We know that rebuilding North Carolina to be stronger is a team effort,” State Budget Director Charlie Perusse told the appropriations committee. “We look forward to working on needs that haven’t been met.”

The dollars won’t go as far as they did in 2016. Reconstruction could cost 10 percent more than original property replacement values, in part because of the Trump administration’s trade policy. Trump has levied steep tariffs on imported goods from China and Canada, including building materials such as steel and wood. As a result, those materials are more expensive for U.S. consumers. Labor and material shortages could increase the $754 million reconstruction costs, according to the governor’s report.

The 100-year flood plain is no longer a protection, but a relic. Click to Tweet

Recovery funding — the easier part of the appropriations process — is an achievement that lawmakers running for re-election can boast about to their constituents.

But resilience, which entails long-term planning, even beyond some lawmakers’ lifespans, can seem abstract. Obvious improvements, such as upgrading municipal wastewater systems, can become mired in the politics of whose district benefits. Controversial proposals, such as stronger regulations on coastal development, collide with the interests of industry, which still wants to profit from often foolhardy construction.

Climate change, linked to more frequent and intense storms, is expected to radically alter weather and population patterns over the next 20 years — much sooner than scientists had anticipated. As the weather becomes less predictable — and more aberrant — the 100-year flood plain is no longer a protection, but a relic. “If a home has flooded more than once in two years, does it matter if it’s in a 100-year flood plain?” Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake), said at yesterday’s Joint Appropriations Committee meeting. “You probably should not build there regardless of where it is on a map.”

“Point well taken,” Dollar replied. “We also have to bear in mind that individuals’ property rights are impacted as well. If a property has been in a family for several hundred years, we have to be cognizant of property rights.”

Source: Office of the Governor

Property rights, though, have been central to the legal and policy battles over the industrialized hog farms. Many of these farms, with their attendant open-pit waste lagoons, odor and insect problems, have been built near residents whose land has been in their family for 50 to 100 years or more. And when these farms flood, the spray fields and lagoons can discharge contamination into waterways and onto nearby property.

To address this environmental and public health threat, Gov. Cooper’s disaster relief budget allocated $75 million in resiliency funds to expand the voluntary swine farm buyout program to include operations in the 500-year flood plain. Under the current program, which limits eligibility to farms in the 100-year flood plain, the state pays participating farmers to permanently close their lagoons and hog farms and then put part of the land into a conservation easement. Farmers can still grow row crops, for example, or raise smaller numbers of animals on pasture.

The Department of Agriculture recently issued a fifth application period using $5 million leftover from the forestry budget. That amount will purchase just five to eight farms in the 100-year flood plain; another 45 to 62 remain.

Yet Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler told lawmakers last week that he opposes expanding the buyout program unless the hogs can be moved to other industrialized farms within North Carolina, rather than go out of state. That would require state lawmakers to roll back a 20-year moratorium prohibiting the construction of new and expanded swine farms unless those operations modernize their waste systems and discontinued their open lagoons and sprayfields.

Resilience entails long-term planning, even beyond some lawmakers' lifespans Click to Tweet

Gov. Cooper’s relief budget sought to address Troxler’s concerns by allowing resiliency funds to be spent on grants for farmers and third parties, such as Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, to modernize their waste systems to “environmentally superior technology.”

The General Assembly budget appropriates $50 million to the Department of Agriculture for recovery — pasture repair, reforestation, certain road repairs — but does not specifically mention hog operations or waste lagoons.

Lawmakers appropriated $4 million for three relatively simple environmental programs: Aid to the commercial fishing industry, as well as money to conduct beach damage surveys and clean up marine debris. However, many Republican legislators have been reluctant, if not hostile, to funding the Department of Environmental Quality. Such reluctance could jeopardize essential money for dam repair, water quality protection and infrastructure upgrades for struggling utilities.

Gov. Cooper has recommended $25 million in grants for wastewater and drinking water, plus $5 million to help fix dams that, if they fail, imperil people living downstream. Another $25 million from Cooper’s resiliency budget would go to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to address flood abatement and surface water quality in counties affected by Florence. Another $87.5 million would be spent to map and model flood prone areas, provide real time flood information, and to build a levee that could help protect the small town of Fair Bluff.

How, and if, the governor’s and the legislature’s budgets align will become clearer on Nov. 27, when the General Assembly convenes after crucial statewide elections in another special session. That’s when lawmakers, including the lame ducks, will undertake the real work of planning for an unpredictable future.