floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew receded a little more than a month
ago, the storm’s effects will linger for years. And if past is
prologue, experiences from the disaster will reshape planning and
practices at all levels of government.
In North Carolina, policy changes large and small
tend to follow major storms and Matthew and the extensive inland floods
that followed certainly qualify, with 29 storm-related deaths and
damage estimates climbing above the $2 billion mark.
This week, the Hurricane Matthew Recovery
Committee finishes its initial round of community meetings. McCrory
announced the committee’s formation in late October and convened the
first meeting in Raleigh on Nov. 1. The committee has been trying to
gauge local needs above what’s likely to be funded through state and
federal disaster aid.
Meanwhile, additional federal aid is in the works
on top of what is already flowing. A running tally kept by State
Emergency Management put the total in direct aid to victims of the
hurricane at $79.6 million.
Since the 48 counties affected by Matthew have
been officially declared federal disaster areas, the federal government
will pay for the bulk of disaster relief, but the size and scope of the
storm, already among the costliest in state history, will require
substantial funds from state and local coffers.
The McCrory administration submitted to Congress
on Nov. 14 its updated estimate of the cost of the storm, asking for
more than $1 billion in federal support. The request includes more than
$810 million for community block grant disaster assistance; $40 million
for the Army Corps of Engineers to restore federally authorized
navigational channels; $41.6 million for dam safety; $22 million in
highway funding; and $111 million for farm conservation and
The request is being combined with requests for
disaster aid from West Virginia and Louisiana for floods earlier in the
year and from other states affected by Matthew.
Right now, the status of federal disaster aid is
in a kind of end-of-session limbo. While Congress is likely to pass a
continuing resolution on or before its scheduled departure date of Dec.
16, there’s no guarantee that the aid proposals will be included in the
bill. Congressional leaders have yet to decide on whether allow the aid
package and other spending to be added or pass a “clean” continuing
resolution, which would shift the proposal to the next Congress.
The timing of federal aid could affect what steps
North Carolina takes in adopting its own recovery package. Although the
governor had previously said he’d prefer to call a special session of
the General Assembly after knowing what steps Congress might take,
McCrory said this week he intends to call a special session next week
“We’re waiting on Washington,” Rep. Pat
McElraft, R-Carteret, said. While a session seems probable, she said,
the date is still a question mark. “I wish they’d set a date if we’re
going to do it.”
Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, said he’s still
skeptical that a session will happen. “I’m not sure we’re going to have
a session,” he said after a committee hearing Tuesday. “We might, but
right now I don’t know.”
Cook said whatever funding comes will be focused
on getting roads repaired and finding ways to make recovery efforts
move more quickly.
“I’m going to make sure the infrastructure
primarily is repaired as quickly as possible and the lives of my
constituents are not impacted to this extent in the future,” Cook said.
The state has funded extra material and personnel
costs through its two main emergency funds, but has yet to tap into the
state’s Savings Reserve Account, the so-called “rainy day fund.” To do
that, McCrory needs to get legislative approval.
In advance of the special session, state agencies
are preparing cost estimates and strategies for moving ahead once the
state and federal funding are settled.
The state budget office has estimated that the
state has enough in its emergency funds to last through mid-February.
The next legislative session begins the two-year budget cycle, but a
final plan isn’t expected until long after the funds are exhausted.
As with previous responses to major storms, what
happens after Matthew is destined to be far more than just providing
funds to rebuild.
Throughout the storm, the similarities between
Matthew and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 were apparent. Both will be
remembered for the intensity of inland flooding, with some areas hit in
1999 again underwater. But in some instances, changes put in place
since Floyd made significant difference in the extent of the damage.
One standout difference was the reduction in the
number of hog operations that were affected by the floods, the result
of both better forecasting and a state buyout program under the Clean
Water Management Trust Fund. They buyout moved dozens of operations out
of the 100-year floodplain.
The most noticeable difference between the two storms was technology driven.
Through the storm, emergency workers repeatedly
credited the state’s Flood Inundation Mapping Program and Alert Network
with saving lives by predicting in real time and with improved accuracy
where and when waters would rise.
The network proved essential given how difficult
it was to predict the storm’s exact path. Tracking rainfall and river
and stream gauges, the new software helped the state better deploy
swift water rescue teams and stockpile supplies closest to the areas
Improving the network and using improvements in
technology for better analysis for floodplain mapping and flood
prediction is one of the key recommendations being proposed by a
coalition of environmental organizations as part of a new “Build
Better” plan that outlines a number of steps based on experiences
during Matthew, including the effectiveness of policy changes
implemented after Floyd.
Grady McCallie, policy director for the North
Carolina Conservation Network and one of the main authors of the
recommendations, said the working document is intended to get
policymakers thinking about future innovations that could reduce damage
from another major storm. Utilizing improvements in floodplain mapping,
such as the mapping network, is a key theme, he said.
“North Carolina has done an amazing job of
investing in our data infrastructure to understand our floodplains and
the danger of the water,” McCallie said. “What we haven’t done is
connect that to the forward-looking decisions we make. So, when the
state’s investing in infrastructure or local governments are permitting
land use, those decisions ought to be informed by that information.”
Right now, McCallie said, public policy looks
backward. Insurance costs and land use rules make it hard to build in
places that have flooded in the past, he said. “Using those (mapping)
systems, we can predict what will be flooding in the future and we’re
not doing that.”
Other proposals in the Build Better plan include
bolstering current programs, such as increasing buyout programs for
properties in the floodplains and a substantial increase for the Clean
Water Management Trust Fund to improve water and sewer infrastructure.
The plan also advocates exploring major policy changes. One idea is to
create a legal framework for providing coastal property owners facing
an inevitable loss from erosion some form of property tax relief
through coastal retreat easements, which would set parameters for the
orderly removal infrastructure such as storage tanks and septic systems.
A draft of the document, which includes about 20
separate proposals, will go out to policymakers ahead of the special
session, but McCallie said he doesn’t expect to see much action in the
“It would be great if some of the proposals could
be dealt with as part of a recovery package, but most are more likely
to be dealt with over a longer term.”
article is provided by Coastal Review Online, an online news service
covering North Carolina's coast. For more news, features, and
information about the coast, go to www.coastalreview.org.)