Florence recovery package wins unanimous approval, heads to Cooper

Florence recovery package wins unanimous approval, heads to Cooper

In an often contentious first week of the N.C. General Assembly’s lame-duck session, Democrats and Republicans unanimously came together to pass a roughly $300 million bill to fund Hurricane Florence relief efforts.

Senate Bill 823 passed the state House and Senate unanimously and was sent to Gov. Roy Cooper Thursday afternoon.

Last month, Cooper signed an $800 million recovery package into law and lawmakers held $400 million in reserve.

This latest allocation of recovery aid would account for most of that reserve. The bulk of it—about $240 million of the $300 million in the bill—will go to the Department of Agriculture to aid farmers whose crops and businesses were devastated by the storm.

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler called agriculture “the foundation industry in many of these areas,” and told lawmakers Tuesday that the recovery bill was the most important thing in which he’s been involved since taking office in 2005.

“This bill is the best thing the legislature can do right now to restart the economy in these rural areas that have been so heavily impacted,” Troxler said. “We are hopeful this will get this economic engine restarted in rural North Carolina,” he continued.

The bill also contains $10 million to aid commercial fishing and shellfish farming industries through the Department of Environmental Quality.

Speaking before the Senate Appropriations committee Tuesday, Jerry Schill of the North Carolina Fisheries Association said the fishing industry has been hard hit by multiple storms the last few years. The bill is a good start toward putting the shaken industry back together.

“Commercial fisherman are not exactly prone to come up here and ask for money,” Schill told lawmakers. “Sometimes we’re up here and fight something we think will be negative—actually, a lot of times we’re doing that. But we don’t come here with our hands out. But certainly this is something that has greatly affected our rural communities, our fishing communities, and we greatly appreciate this bill.”

Also contained in the bill:

  • $25 million as part of a short-term loan fund for local governments as they wait for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to come through and funding for temporary housing for displaced people.
  • $23.5 million for the Department of Public Instruction to help finish school repairs and renovations. The need is particularly dire in the Wilmington area, where schools are having to set up temporary classrooms to simply continue with the school year.
  • $18.5 million for the Department of Environmental Quality for required federal matches related to coastal mitigation.
  • $5 million for small business loans through the Rocky Mount-based Golden LEAF foundation.
  • $1 million for the Administrative Office of the Courts to repair damaged courthouses. Some courts in coastal communities were closed for weeks due to damage to buildings and equipment.

Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake) touted conservative budgeting which he said allowed the state to build up the healthy rain-day fund needed to address the disastrous effects of Hurricane Florence.

“We had an historic natural disaster for this state,” Dollar said. “We’ve had a historic response for this state.”

On Wednesday, Cooper submitted a request to North Carolina’s congressional delegation for an additional $6.3 billion in federal funding for Hurricane Florence relief. That brings the state’s total federal request to $8.8 billion.

Even the larger request will only cover about 52 percent of the damage caused by the storm, now estimated at about $17 billion.

“The impact exceeds the cumulative damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999,” Cooper wrote to the congressional delegation. “North Carolina lost 42 lives because of the storm. People have been displaced, businesses have been ruined, farms have been flooded. The communities devastated by the storm are some of the most vulnerable in the state, with over half of the affected population living below the 150 percent poverty line.”

“The area is also critically important to our state’s $87 billion agricultural economy that employs one in six North Carolinians,” Cooper wrote in the letter. “This crisis occurred at harvest time for many of North Carolina’s important crops, multiplying the pain of many farmers who have now experienced two destructive storms in the last two years. We also saw major damage to some of our thriving economic engines in the east. The hit to these important areas made the blow that much worse.”

Cooper outlined the ways in which the state plans to use the federal relief funds.

Among them:

  • Repairing highways, interstates, and the coast in ways that are resilient and safe, supporting the economy and tourism industry.
  • Building more resilient homes in safe areas across North Carolina.
  • Reviving businesses that lost workers, income and stock with forgivable loans.
  • Expanding the Recovery and Resiliency Office to coordinate efficient state and federal financial assistance for housing, infrastructure and recovery.
  • Helping farmers whose harvest-time crops were ruined and providing incentives for farmers to invest in further resiliency measures.
  • Ensuring medical help and mental health treatment for those impacted by the storm.

“I am proud of the people of our state who are working together to overcome these disasters,” Cooper wrote. “Now it is our job to work together to rebuild North Carolina stronger and smarter.”