Gov. Roy Cooper traveled to Edgecombe County Thursday to hear from local officials about progress being made in the recovery from Hurricane Matthew, and to try to reassure them the state is working to help.
“We know people are frustrated,” Cooper said during one of four stops in the county, where 117 families still were living in hotels as of Thursday, after being displaced by flood waters from the hurricane five months ago. “We know they want to get into a more permanent housing solution.”
Edgecombe County – along with Cumberland, Wayne and Robeson – was among the hardest hit by flooding from the storm, which in some places surpassed records set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
Like many rural counties, Edgecombe had a shortage of available affordable housing before the storm hit, and high water took out much of what existed.
Across Eastern North Carolina, 581 households remained in motels as of Thursday, said Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. At its peak after the storm, the number was more than 3,000.
About $300 million in federal funds, most of it administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and about $162 million in state appropriations, have been flowing into the eastern half of the state to help families and businesses relocate or rebuild.
Cooper has said the state will ask for additional federal funds, but the request is still being prepared.
The storm and the flooding that followed it were blamed for 28 deaths in the state and an estimated $1.6 billion in damages to homes, businesses, crops and other property, about 68 percent of which is not expected to be covered by insurance or FEMA assistance. So far, the state has committed at least $161 million from the $200 million Disaster Recovery Act of 2016. The federal government has pledged about $300 million.
Besides asking for more appropriations, Cooper said he would ask the state legislature to rescind a restriction it enacted in 2013 that allows federal Community Development Block Grant funds to be used only for water and sewer projects and economic development. Making that change would mean some of those funds could be used to encourage the development of affordable housing.
More than 80,000 households have registered with FEMA. Those who suffered losses from the storm are told first to rely on their insurance, if they have any. Next, they are instructed to apply to the federal Small Business Administration for a long-term, low-interest loan. If they don’t qualify for a loan, they can apply for a relatively small grant.
Officials know that many of those whose homes were flooded will rely on the help of non-profits to rebuild. Cliff Harvell, disaster response superintendent for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, showed Cooper during his visit that the agency is ready for the influx of volunteers it expects to see as the weather warms up.
“We have 26 beds, and they’re all occupied,” Harvell said as Cooper walked into a county-owned building where office cubicles have been converted into stalls for single beds. Except for the beds and the governor’s entourage, the room was empty; during the day, volunteers are out on assignment, repairing houses. The group also is working in Windsor, Fayetteville and Lumberton, Harvell said, and is lining up volunteers for the months ahead.
“There’s a reason we call it long-term recovery,” said Harvell, who told the governor that the Methodists expect the work to take up to five years.
Cooper also stopped in to visit the temporary Princeville Elementary School, whose 200 students were driven out of their building in Princeville when the Tar River came in and flooded most of the town. The school has temporarily relocated to the Bridgers Building in Tarboro.
Cooper dropped in during reading time in Mrs. Norville’s classroom and read two books he had borrowed from one of his staffers.
Princeville Town Manager Daniel Gerald told the governor that it’s not clear what will happen to the school in Princeville. It was rebuilt after being ruined by Hurricane Floyd, and the county school system has said insurance would pay for most of the cost of repairs this time as well. But insurance would not pay to elevate the school so that it would be protected from future floods. Also, Gerald said, town leaders don’t know how many of Princeville’s residents will come back, so they don’t know if there will be enough students to fill the school.