LUMBERTON — A Republican member of the state House of Representatives is going straight to the governor to learn why $265.5 million in federal money intended to mitigate damage caused by Hurricane Matthew has not been spent.
“It has been nearly two years since Hurricane Matthew devastated the citizens of North Carolina. Every week in my home of Tabor City and Columbus County, I see the damage that remains,” Rep. Brenden Jones writes in his letter to Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Jones asks in his letter why just one in 22 “affected counties received final approval to spend the federal community development block grants for disaster recovery.”
The letter reads in part, “According to Emergency Management, three additional counties are expected t complete paperwork by August. Work is ‘just now underway in the remaining 18 counties.’ Why has the process just now begun for the remaining affected counties?”
Jones also asks why the funds are being delayed, why it has taken more than six months to submit new environmental impact studies for the counties and why the original environmental impact study was rejected by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in January.
In his letter, Jones reminds Cooper that House Speaker Tim Moore recently authorized the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief to meet to discuss the ongoing issue regarding disaster recovery funding. He asks Cooper if there is any way the committee can help expedite the process.
Jones, a freshman representative facing re-election in November, is continuing his criticism of Cooper. Recently he sent a letter to the editor to The Robesonian complaining about Cooper and the slow pace of getting money to the Matthew victims.
“As serious questions remain unanswered regarding the slow pace of the Cooper Administration’s recovery effort, it’s critical that we continue our committee’s oversight to ensure folks get the help they need,” said Rep. John Bell, a Wayne County Republican and chairman of the committee.
Progress is being made with the $236.5 million in federal Housing and Urban Development grant money, said Greg Thomas, a spokesman for N.C. Emergency Management.
“The federally-required environmental reviews are now complete for projects in Robeson County, and in August the three remaining most impacted counties’ reviews (Edgecombe, Cumberland and Wayne) will be complete,” he said in an email. “When these reviews are complete the county will be able to move forward with housing recovery projects.”
The Community Development Block Grant money requires a complicated eight-step application process, and the state has received 1,982 applications so far. About 950 of those have made it to the second of eight steps, while most of the rest are still on step one, which requires extensive documentation.
“NCEM currently has seven open application centers to collect this information and in August will begin operating mobile centers to make getting this information easier for storm impacted persons,” Thomas said.
June was a busy month for another Hurricane Matthew relief fund, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to buy out, elevate or reconstruct property in flood-prone areas impacted by the hurricane.
The state applied for $100 million in grant money last October for more than 800 properties. So far, 627 properties have been approved, totaling $79.7 million across 33 counties and municipalities, with conditional approvals for 14 others in Wayne County. Most of those awards were announced in June and early July. Thomas said remaining awards will be announced by the end of this month, with the exception of Princeville, which didn’t submit its application to FEMA until June 28.
“This process could take between three to nine months from the time of submission to FEMA,” he said.
The pace of recovery hasn’t been fast enough for Rep. Jones, who wrote to Moore on July 10 asking for the House disaster relief committee to meet again. Jones wrote that he wants the committee to “review and discuss the appropriate measures moving forward. North Carolina stands to lose millions of federal dollars because of the Governor’s tepid response. We must continue to do everything in our power to hold this administration accountable.”
Jones cited a television news report about Emergency Management missing a self-imposed deadline to begin construction on the first projects using the HUD grant money. The report referred to a statement made during an April House disaster relief committee meeting by Nick Burk, assistant director for resiliency. Burk told lawmakers then that he hoped construction would begin by June 30.
Burk has since left the job. John Ebbighausen will now oversee grant funding and various disaster relief programs. He’d previously worked for the N.C. National Guard and has 28 years of military experience in strategic planning, operations, contract management and command, according to Emergency Management.
The Raleigh News & Observer contributed to this report.