The toll from Hurricane Irene has gradually emerged in neighborhoods and towns scattered across Eastern North Carolina. On Tuesday the first hard numbers quantified the destruction, and the state's political leaders jockeyed to respond.
The hurricane destroyed more than 1,100 homes, causing damages that are now placed at $71 million and will rise higher as crop losses, clean-up costs and other expenses are added, Gov. Bev Perdue said.
Perdue said she hopes soon to win a federal disaster declaration for seven hard-hit counties - Dare, Craven, Beaufort, Tyrrell, Carteret, Pamlico and Hyde.
The governor also announced the establishment of a new state-run disaster relief fund created from private donations, and she urged people to contribute. The money will be distributed to volunteer groups for long-term recovery, such as rebuilding and repairing homes.
The governor spent the day touring several damaged counties with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Greensboro; U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; and Steve Troxler, the state agriculture commissioner. All appeared at a news conference in Manteo.
Vilsack said he had never seen such widespread flood damage.
Perdue, briefing reporters later in the day at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, said she asked Napolitano about reports that Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives are vowing not to authorize additional money for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund unless the funds are offset by spending cuts elsewhere.
Perdue said Napolitano assured her that sufficient money would be available to North Carolina because the hurricane relief takes precedence over lesser disasters.
"I'm confident that as soon as we get those counties declared disaster areas the resources will begin to flow seamlessly to North Carolina," Perdue said.
Sixteen Democratic legislators signed a letter to the General Assembly's Republican leaders on Tuesday calling for creation of a committee to assess communities' needs. The committee should meet next week to begin preparing disaster-relief legislation that the General Assembly could take up when it convenes for a week in September, the letter said.
Sen. Ed Jones, a Democrat who represents counties in the northeastern part of the state, said one thing the committee should look at is how to make sure everyone knows what North Carolina's more isolated rural areas need in future disasters.
"I know we have nothing to do with what God does, but I think we could be a little bit more prepared, making sure we have services in place," said Jones, one of the letter signers. "I'm supporting doing anything we can to make sure next time - and there will be another time, not only in my district but across the state - to make sure we have people trained and they know who to get to."
Last spring, the General Assembly responded to tornadoes that tore up the state by creating a joint committee on tornadoes. Rep. Annie Mobley, a Democrat who also represents the northeastern counties, also signed the letter but said more concrete action is needed. She was a member of the tornado committee, which she said only met twice.
"I can't say it helped a great deal," Mobley said.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger released his own letter in response to the Democrats, agreeing the legislature should take prompt action. Berger said he is already assembling a Senate committee on emergency management, which will determine the best response to Hurricane Irene as well as increase preparedness for future natural disasters.
Berger said a bipartisan committee will include senators in leadership roles in agriculture, transportation, public safety and natural resources. Berger said the state maintains a rainy day fund just for this kind of disaster.
Perdue, at the Tuesday evening news conference, said there is $6 million in disaster recovery in the state budget. She said it's too soon to know how much more might be needed from the General Assembly. That depends in part on how much federal money is awarded.
The governor also said that most beaches will be open for the Labor Day weekend, but she advised visitors to check ahead of time for lodging.
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