This Christmas Day in Eastern North Carolina many families with babies have found room in the inn.
They are among the hundreds of people who lost their homes during Hurricane Matthew and who more than two months after the disaster are still staying in hotels and other short-term housing. Some are without access to a car or a kitchen. In Robeson County, hit hard by the Lumber River’s flooding, 600 families are still living in short-term housing.
You may recall that the General Assembly came back for a special session on Dec. 13 to help those left homeless and other people, businesses and towns battered and flooded by the early October hurricane. What you may have missed amid all the political fireworks that followed the storm session is that the Republican-led legislature provided only paltry help, though legislative leaders promised to do more later.
“This bill is just the start,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers followed that session with two special sessions. In the first, the Republicans stripped appointive powers from incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. In the next, they reneged on a deal to repeal House Bill 2 after Charlotte repealed its ordinance protecting LGBT rights that triggered the state legislation. Those acts of bad faith make it hard to trust the promise of more help to come for Eastern North Carolina.
Lawmakers did approve $201 million in relief for those who suffered losses from the hurricane and also from wildfires in the western part of state. The amount that went to hurricane relief was $175 million. That’s not much compared to the losses that could exceed $2 billion. And it pales next to the $836 million the legislature provided after Hurricane Floyd, a similar Eastern North Carolina disaster that caused widespread flooding in 1999. In today’s dollars, the Floyd allocation would be $1.2 billion.
Gov. Pat McCrory made a high-profile response to the storm during the homestretch of his campaign for re-election. “I saw firsthand as I traveled the state how the strong waters from the Lumber, Neuse, Cape Fear and Tar Rivers tragically forced people from their homes and businesses. But those waters also brought out the best of North Carolina,” he said in a statement. “Rising waters can crumble our roads and flood our communities, but they cannot wash away our resilience or the spirit to rebuild.”
Maybe rising waters can’t wash away that spirit, but it seems rising partisanship can. State Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat whose Eastern North Carolina district includes five counties declared federal disaster areas, said she and other Democrats were not included in discussions of the relief funding bill.
“I was quite disappointed that my (Democratic) colleagues on the Senate side were not part of the process of putting together funding for phase one,” she said.
Smith-Ingram wonders whether the initial relief is small because many of the storm victims are low-income African-Americans and Lumbee Indians. “I really question if it were a different demographic whether we would have received more interest and more of an appropriation,” she said.
The limited scope of the financial relief is especially pointed because the state has money on hand to do much more. McCrory and Republicans legislative leaders speak of their fiscal stewardship in building up a $1.6 billion main reserve or “rainy day” fund. “It’s not like we don’t have the money,” Smith-Ingram said. “We have have $1 billion for just this reason.”
Sen. Jane W. Smith, a Democrat representing Robeson and Columbus counties, agreed that Republicans should tap the reserve fund for a larger allocation. “If anything qualifies as a rainy day, I believe a hurricane would,” she said.
The package that passed leaves most of the need unmet, she said. The allocation for short-term housing will provide provide 100 mobile homes in Robeson County, “but that still leaves 500 families stuck in hotels,” she said.
These kind of shortfalls abound. Federal relief funds will help towns and counties with up to 75 percent of their costs, but damaged and washed-out businesses can only get federal loans. Smith thinks the state should give direct grants to help re-open some businesses.
Immediately after the special session, Republican lawmakers called another special session to do what they considered more urgent business – limit Democratic Gov.-elect Cooper’s powers before he takes office.
Smith said the switch in subjects suggests that the storm victims were used as pawns in a political game. “My suspicion is that the hurricane was an excuse to get us up here to do that other stuff,” she said.
And so, after making a weak effort to help those hammered by a hurricane, the legislature’s majority whipped up political storms that damaged the state in other ways.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com