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Cooper will not appeal FEMA denial, turns to SBA and state funds for Dorian recovery

Gov. Roy Cooper will not appeal the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to deny North Carolina’s request for individual assistance in areas hit hard by September’s Hurricane Dorian.

Instead, Cooper has asked the Small Business Administration to issue a disaster declaration for Dorian’s impacts in North Carolina, a step that would allow victims to apply for low-interest loans that can be used to make home repairs, replace personal property and repair businesses damaged or destroyed by the storm.

The SBA loans would be part of a state-managed disaster relief program for Dorian’s victims, Cooper’s office announced. Those who either do not qualify for SBA or whose damages are not fully covered by the program would then be able to apply for state-funded individual assistance grants.

In a prepared statement, Cooper said, “I’m asking the SBA for assistance so we can get more state help to Hurricane Dorian survivors as quickly as possible. While it’s disappointing that federal government assistance for this was turned down, we know that North Carolinians should not leave each other behind.”

FEMA’s decision to deny North Carolina’s request was met with confusion and anger in the village of Ocracoke, which suffered widespread damage from a record-setting storm surge that Dorian pushed from Pamlico Sound onto the island. Dorian also caused flooding in northern New Hanover County, and its outer bands spun off dozens of tornadoes, causing heavy damage in an Emerald Isle RV park and a development near Calabash.

Cooper’s announcement comes a day after U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both North Carolina Republicans, issued a joint press release stating their offices had met with Cooper administration staff and N.C. Emergency Management officials on Wednesday. The state officials, they wrote, acknowledged that a FEMA individual assistance declaration was unlikely.

“We urge the governor not to draw this process out by filing an appeal,” they wrote. “Instead, he should activate available state programs that can get necessary funding to impacted areas without delay.”

An SBA disaster declaration would cover the four counties for which Cooper previously requested FEMA aid — Carteret, Dare, Hyde and New Hanover — as well as any contiguous counties. Ford Porter, a Cooper spokesman, said the state individual assistance grant program would cover the same area.

The state individual grants would be paid for out of the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund, which received $5 million in a disaster recovery mini-budget Cooper signed into law last month. Porter also said Cooper administration officials have begun discussions with members of the N.C. General Assembly about a Hurricane Dorian disaster recovery bill, which would likely include additional appropriations for the State Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund.

North Carolina has used SBA loans and state-funded individual assistance grants to provide disaster relief as recently as July, when Cooper issued a state disaster declaration after heavy rains caused flooding from June 7 to June 10 in Charlotte, Catawba and nearby counties. Recovery from Dorian, Porter said, would be a significantly larger effort than recent state-funded individual assistance programs.

“This will be a bigger operation just because you’re talking about an actual community,” Porter said, referencing Ocracoke, “and not houses here or there.”

Keith Acree, a spokesman for N.C. Emergency Management, said state officials are optimistic that the SBA will agree to declare a disaster declaration for Hurricane Dorian, possibly as soon as next Tuesday. Unlike the FEMA decision, which is based on a multitude of factors, the SBA will declare a disaster if a combination of 25 homes or businesses suffered major uninsured losses.

According to Cooper’s letter to the SBA, damage assessments conducted Sept. 26 and 27 determined that at least 25 buildings suffered major damage in each of Carteret, Dare, Hyde and New Hanover counties.

Acree said state emergency management officials were working Friday to identify locations in affected counties could be used as disaster recovery centers. Typically, those centers open the day after the SBA makes a disaster declaration.

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 News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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