Politics & Government

McCrory slams Cooper on Hurricane Matthew recovery: 'That promise was broken'

Former Gov. Pat McCrory blasted what he calls a "leadership void" in Gov. Roy Cooper's Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts, and he's offering to assemble a group of former governors to help out.

"I take it personally — as governor I made a promise to those citizens impacted by the floods that the state would help them," McCrory told the NC Insider on Monday. "When I see a lack of action, it means that promise was broken."

And the criticisms kept coming Tuesday.

"Cooper should do better," wrote the editorial board of Virginia's largest paper, which also serves some of northeastern North Carolina.

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That editorial in the Virginian-Pilot lamented what it said was North Carolina's lack of progress compared to Virginia and South Carolina, on the heels of reports that North Carolina has yet to spend anything from a pot of federal money that's supposed to put families displaced by the storm into new homes.

NC Emergency Management hasn't yet spent any of a $236.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Cooper administration, however, responded that the untouched money is on track to begin being paid out next month — and that in the meantime, the state has already doled out more than $630 million in other forms of hurricane relief.

"The state has worked to get these dollars out quickly and efficiently," said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, which has taken a lead role in the recovery. Most of the money spent so far came from various federal programs aimed at things like helping small businesses rebuild, or paying flood insurance claims.

It also includes $86 million in state money, Jarema said.

Hurricane Matthew struck the East Coast more than a year and a half ago, in October 2016.

"In the absence of any other explanation, the inaction so far suggests a lack of competence," the Virginian-Pilot wrote.

"Sadly, the federal money which I began the process to get has just sat and done nothing," McCrory said. "There doesn't seem to be any energy directed out of the governor's office to make things happen."

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter disputed that.

"Disaster recovery is often a long-term process and requires bipartisan leaders to put politics aside to get the job done, which the former governor may not fully appreciate in his current role as a regional conservative talk-radio host," he said in an email.

The former governor pointed to Dempsey Benton, the former Health and Human Services secretary who Cooper hired as a special adviser on Hurricane Matthew last year. McCrory pointed out that Benton is no longer on the job and hasn't been replaced. "You couldn't tell the difference between when he was there and when he left," McCrory said, although the former governor had praise for Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry, who has been in the job since 2013.

"During the hurricane, Mike Sprayberry and my hurricane team did an incredible job, but I wasn't invisible during that process," McCrory said.

Emergency Management officials have said delays are due in part to the agency taking over responsibility for the federal grants, which had previously been handled by the Department of Commerce. That change was part of the December 2016 hurricane relief bill that was passed by the legislature and signed by McCrory; McCrory said he could not recall details about the transfer.

In the Virginian-Pilot editorial, the North Carolina legislature did not escape scorn. "The Republicans who control the state’s legislature ... are not blameless," the paper wrote. "The legislature is habitually at odds with Cooper, a Democrat, making it difficult to get things done. Instead of tweets, legislative leaders could try to come up with constructive solutions to the delay."

Porter said Benton was hired to "help coordinate the initial phase of the recovery" as Emergency Management organized to take on its new duties. Benton worked until February — "several months longer than initially intended," Porter said, adding that "the recovery is currently being directed by Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry and the Division of Emergency Management."

The agency has also been criticized for completing required environmental assessments for only four counties — Cumberland, Robeson, Wayne and Edgecombe. Under HUD requirements, those counties will receive 80 percent of the $236.5 million grant, while other counties receive the remaining 20 percent.

"An environmental assessment was completed for the four Tier 1 counties and submitted to HUD in August 2017," Emergency Management spokesman Keith Acree said in an email. "HUD requested revisions to the environmental assessments and those are currently in progress. Once the Tier 1 assessment is finalized, the environmental assessments for remaining counties will follow."

The red tape in North Carolina compares poorly to the state's southern neighbor, the Virginian-Pilot wrote: "Things don’t have to be this way. There ought to be a quicker, better way to use available money to help hurricane victims get into safe, sanitary homes. In South Carolina, things are noticeably better. That state received the same type of grants at the same time, but its recovery is months ahead of North Carolina’s."

McCrory said the Cooper administration might benefit from the advice of former governors who have dealt with previous natural disasters. "I offer my help in any way to the administration," McCrory said. "I'd encourage the administration to not only call me, but call all the former governors who have dealt with hurricanes in the past. This should be bipartisan — it's not political for me."

Since leaving office, McCrory says he's occasionally checked in on the communities affected by Hurricane Matthew.

"I've made a point to take the exit to Fair Bluff, and I just want to sit down and cry seeing that no progress has been made."

Jarema said Fair Bluff was awarded $1.85 million last November to help with Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.

Will Doran: 919-836-2858; @will_doran