Politics & Government

The House ‘pivoted’ on disaster relief Wednesday. Thursday, the Senate pivoted back.

Less than 24 hours after the N.C. House approved a disaster relief package that sponsors said represented a pivot to resilience across the state, the Senate approved a pared-down bill that removed any mention of those efforts.

Wednesday evening, the House voted 109-0 to send the Storm Recovery Act of 2019 to the Senate, a proposal that included a slew of resilience efforts on top of money providing matching funds for federal relief programs. The nearly $280 million package included $30 million for the N.C. Office of Recovery and Resilience to aid local governments in recovery from the hurricanes, $32 million to enhance laser-made topographical maps of North Carolina and $15 million for Golden L.E.A.F. to provide disaster grants to governments and nonprofits, among others.

That bill was not the one voted on in the Senate on Thursday, with the body instead considering and ultimately approving a different Storm Recovery Act of 2019. The Senate effort included $70.8 million to provide matching dollars for Hurricane Florence recovery projects funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program, as well as $31.7 million for similar projects that are part of the recovery from Hurricanes Matthew, Michael and Dorian.

“You shouldn’t read into anything other than that there just isn’t time to sort through all this and do the due diligence in both chambers in a number of days, especially this week,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

It is possible, Ryan added, that the resilience proposals and other parts of the House bill will be discussed when the General Assembly returns from a planned upcoming break.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who sponsored the House relief package, expressed confusion on the House floor Thursday while discussing the Senate bill.

“I’ve had communication with the (Cooper) administration, and they’re as baffled as we are,” McGrady said.

The House voted 106-0 not to concur with the Senate and appointed a conference committee led by McGrady.

Initially, the House bill was a $258 million package that not only shifted funds so they could be used to provide matches for federal relief money, but also allowed for new efforts such as the hiring of as many as 24 resilience experts to help local governments create regional plans to help with flooding and other disasters, as well as four new staff members to help the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality create a coastal resilience plan.

Speaking after the bill was passed out of the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday, Mike Sprayberry, the state’s director of emergency management, said, “We’re excited about it. You talk about 24 people that could be hired and placed out in the (councils of governments), just think about that. Their job is going to be promoting resiliency and helping local governments. I don’t think anywhere else in the nation would have anything like that. And then of course, the match funding is important for the continued recovery.”

Without action from the General Assembly, Sprayberry cautioned, the state pot that provides matching funds for public assistance projects will run dry by the end of November.

During that same Wednesday committee meeting, McGrady said there had been limited conversation with Senate leaders regarding the disaster proposal.

“I’d like to get this as right as we can before we hand it over to the Senate,” McGrady said Wednesday, “but I also know that the Senate hasn’t seen much of it yet, so it could change in other ways.”

Wednesday evening, the House approved several amendments that were discussed earlier in the day, including $17.6 million to DEQ to match federal Clean Water and Drinking Water state revolving funds, $5 million to fund the state’s program to buy out swine farms in the 100-year floodplain and $5 million to assist with storm debris removal.

The Senate bill does not include any of those amendments. It also reduces the amount of money specified for the recovery from this year’s Hurricane Dorian, which produced a record-setting storm surge from Pamlico Sound that flooded Ocracoke Island.

Where the House proposal included $17.8 million for Dorian recovery, the Senate bill reduced that appropriation to $16.3 million. The Senate version also omitted any mention of allowing the Dorian funds to be used to support the state’s individual assistance program, launched after FEMA denied Gov. Roy Cooper’s application.

In a prepared statement, Dory MacMillan, a Cooper spokeswoman, wrote, “We appreciate the legislature helping fund disaster recovery. There are funds needed for federal match from previous storms and state individual assistance for Dorian that are time sensitive and we hope this matter can be handled soon.”

This reporting is financially supported by Report for America/GroundTruth Project and The North Carolina Local News Lab Fund, a component fund of the North Carolina Community Foundation. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.
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