In a downtown Raleigh warehouse, community activists from all over Eastern North Carolina are collecting and shipping donations for Hurricane Florence recovery. But on Tuesday they focused their attention on a different building a few miles away — the N.C. General Assembly.
Legislators came back to Raleigh Tuesday for an emergency relief session, passing bills to help get state and federal money flowing into areas of the state hit by Hurricane Florence last month.
At the same time, activists from the eastern part of the state and the group Just Florence Recovery were calling on state leaders to give out more money so there would be less reliance on federal funding that can sometimes be slow, or less than promised.
“Me and my family lost everything in Hurricane Matthew,” Kelvin Thompson, a Lumberton resident, said at a Just Florence Recovery news conference. “And then here comes Hurricane Florence, and I haven’t even recovered from Hurricane Matthew. And FEMA didn’t give us the assistance we needed to get back on our feet. So we need funds and assistance in our area.”
Legislators on Tuesday approved $50 million for immediate disaster relief efforts, plus $6.5 million to pay school employees who are out of work, saying that more will be coming in the future.
“It is a down payment in anticipation of federal relief and further state action once agencies complete their needs assessments,” Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, said in a press release.
However, that $50 million is a small percentage of the state’s $2 billion rainy day fund, and activists wanted more. The $2 billion in savings is a record amount, which legislators pushed for after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
“Now, I don’t know where you were,” Resea Willis of Brunswick County said on Tuesday. “But where I was, it rained almost 30 inches on us. So if there is a rainy day fund, I’m here to tell you that it’s already raining. We need your help.”
There are legal limits on how much the state can spend from that fund in any given year, but activists like Willis said Tuesday leaders should waive those rules since the need is here and now. Going around the rules to exceed the spending cap would require the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers, The News & Observer has reported.
Willis runs the nonprofit affordable housing group Brunswick Housing Opportunities. She said people in Brunswick County — which stretches from the South Carolina border to Bald Head Island and the outskirts of Wilmington — and other areas in the southeastern corner of the state need urgent help repairing or rebuilding their homes.
The push isn’t just for government money. Volunteers like Willis and Thompson are helping Just Florence Recovery collect supplies and distribute them to communities that were hit by the storm. Anyone who wants to donate supplies or labor to the group — which is operating out of the Anchorlight art space at 1401 S Bloodworth St. — can learn more at justflorencerecovery.org or by calling 919-706-0556.
The office of Gov. Roy Cooper is also soliciting donations to a state government fund, the Disaster Relief Fund, which is separate from the rainy day fund and will be distributing its money through nonprofit groups instead of through the legislature. People can donate to the fund, or apply for grants from it, at https://www.nc.gov/agencies/volunteer/disaster-assistance. People can also donate by texting FLORENCE to 20222 or by dropping off donations during business hours at the governor’s office at 116 W. Jones Street in Raleigh.
“The donations will be distributed to organizations in the disaster-declared regions which provide direct services such as household supplies, food, shelter or other immediate needs to victims of the storm,” said Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper.
‘The same thing over and over’
Some residents of flooded towns are also turning to the courts for help. In Lumberton, local homeowners are trying to force the railroad company CSX to pay for damages caused by the storm. A legal complaint filed last week says CSX knew one of its rail lines through town posed a serious flooding risk but did nothing to prevent flooding, and also stopped locals from trying to put up temporary anti-flooding measures at the site.
The members of Just Florence Recovery also believe companies should bear more responsibility for disaster recovery, such as through higher corporate tax rates. But in the meantime, they’re asking state and federal officials to assess the damage and focus on long-term solutions — not just temporary fixes — since flooding is such a constant concern.
“We don’t need to go through the same thing over and over in our communities,” Thompson said. “We need change in our communities. But we have to have funds to make the change.”
Rev. Tyrone Watson, the president of the Unified Robeson County NAACP and a preacher in neighboring Columbus County, said those two places were among the hardest-hit, and are also home to some of the state’s poorest residents.
“The hurricane basically took the little bit of nothing they did have,” he said. “Even though the hurricane is gone, the storm has just begun for a lot of individuals. And we do — we plead of you, we beg of you, to release the funds.”
Other called on the legislature to do more to hold major polluters accountable, since when flooding hits an area, all the chemicals and bacteria stored at industrial or farm sites can get mixed with the drinking water supply.
“It’s clear to see that communities who are most impacted by this destruction are disproportionately low-income communities, and communities of color, who are already burdened by decades of pollution,” said La’Meshia Whittington-Kaminski, an organizer with the environmental group Friends of the Earth.