Scenes of flooded roads across Eastern NC
During a White House visit Thursday, Gov. Roy Cooper expressed concern to Trump administration officials about how long it is taking disaster relief grants to reach North Carolina, including a $168 million package that state officials have been awaiting for more than a year.
“We know that there are hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money that have been appropriated, but we cannot access that money yet until a Federal Register is posted,” Cooper said by phone Thursday shortly after leaving the meeting.
State officials are waiting for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to publish three Federal Register notices allowing North Carolina to spend at least half a billion dollars in recovery and mitigation funds.
Those notices cover $168 million in Matthew Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) grants for hazard mitigation that were awarded in April 2018, as well as $336.5 million in CDBG-DR funds awarded in May for Florence recovery, and any funds the state would receive as part of a $19.1 billion supplemental disaster relief package that was approved in June.
North Carolina has already received $236.5 million in CDBG-DR funds for Hurricane Matthew recovery in two separate allocations. It took HUD just 26 days to publish the guidelines for a $196.5 million allocation in the Federal Register during January 2017, while a $37.9 million allocation in August 2017 took six days.
Matthew hit North Carolina in October 2016, causing widespread flooding and 31 deaths, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
Among those Cooper met with Thursday were Rear Admiral Peter Brown of the U.S. Coast Guard, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and a member of the National Security Council; Mark P. Harvey, a special assistant to President Donald Trump and the National Security Council’s senior director for resilience policy; and Dana Wade, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget’s general government programs.
“We’re still waiting for the Federal Register so that we can know how we can invest that money in our state. So we talked to them about that and hoping that process can move more rapidly,” Cooper said regarding the $336.5 million Florence award, although the same holds true for the Matthew allocation.
Once the Federal Register notice is published, the state has 90 days to use the guidelines to write an action plan outlining how the funds will be used. That plan must then be approved before the state can spend the grant money.
Cooper said Wade told him the tranches of money would begin to flow to the state “soon” without giving any specifics.
Cooper also said he told the federal officials he supports the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, recently introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require HUD to allocate CDBG-DR funds to governments within 60 days of their being awarded.
In a statement following the meeting, Judd Deere, a deputy White House press secretary, said, “We look forward to the continued State-Federal partnership to help North Carolinians recover from recent hurricanes.”
Republican legislators have blasted the Cooper administration’s oversight of the Matthew grants, with a recent report finding that while most relief funds have been administered in a timely fashion, CDBG-DR has lagged.
North Carolina is among the 63 percent of CDBG-DR recipients classified as “slow spenders,” which the legislative report attributed to missteps with the development of contracts and a lack of experience overseeing CDBG grants within the state departments of Commerce and Public Safety.
The report said North Carolina had only spent about 1% of its $236.5 million in CDBG-DR funds as of December, but Laura Hogshead, the chief operating officer of the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said during a May legislative hearing that spending had risen to about 4%.
Bridget Munger, a Recovery and Resiliency spokeswoman, said Thursday the office has spent about $14.2 million of the $236.5 million, although more funds have been awarded to survivors.
Cooper and other officials have expressed confidence in recent months that administration of CDBG-DR funds will soon be a smoother process.
Key to that effort is the creation of the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which, effective July 1, became both the recipient and spender of CDBG-DR funds. Previously, the N.C. Department of Commerce received funds before they were shifted over to and spent by the Department of Public Safety.
By making the Office of Recovery and Resiliency both the grantee and the spender, Cooper said, funds should reach communities in need more quickly.
“I think the work that has been done with HUD to streamline the process, and streamline our process, will result in money getting to people significantly faster,” Cooper said.
Michael Wilner of McClatchy’s Washington D.C. bureau contributed to this story. This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control.