Last Oct. 9, 2016, I arrived at the Golden LEAF Foundation offices on the banks of the Stoney Creek, a major tributary of the Tar River in Rocky Mount, to find that the water had risen precipitously and with enormous power, moving boulders and washing away the access road to one of our buildings. And though this time Rocky Mount did not feel the brunt of Hurricane Matthew, I prayed for those in Lumberton, Kinston, Princeville, Fayetteville, Fair Bluff and other communities in its direct path.
I had good reason to do so. Matthew was one of the costliest disasters in our state’s history, claiming 31 lives, displacing thousands of North Carolinians, and causing $4.8 billion in flooding damage alone. I pray for those still struggling to recover, even as more recent storms and their victims reach the headlines.
But faith can only be made manifest through action. Golden LEAF was created almost 20 years ago to serve the communities most affected by the change in agriculture and manufacturing that had been the bedrock of our small town economies. Our state leaders felt it only right to assign funds from a legal agreement with cigarette manufacturers in a foundation that could invest the proceeds and use the earnings to transform the economies of rural, tobacco-dependent and economically distressed areas of North Carolina.
The challenges facing these communities were substantial enough before Matthew. But it was clear that this natural disaster threatened to cause an economic disaster in the communities we know and serve. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory and our legislative leaders constructed an aid package to supplement federal and private dollars, and asked Golden LEAF to take on the stewardship of the resources to aid local government repair and restoration, and small business disaster loans to fill the gaps unmet by others.
We agreed to accept this responsibility and to do so without using any of the state funds for our own administration. The direction from state leaders was clear — get these funds committed rapidly and responsibly to help communities heal as fast as possible.
Within 60 days, Golden LEAF hired experienced staff, conducted several outreach meetings with local officials through partnerships with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and N.C. League of Municipalities, developed and distributed grant application forms, coordinated with various state agencies in the new Cooper administration and visited project sites across Eastern North Carolina. By the beginning of June, we had committed the entire amount provided to us in the 2016 Act.
Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly knew that the 2016 action was but a down payment and appropriated additional recovery funds this year. More than half of the $30 million in new funds we received are already committed, and we will finish that job by early December.
This task was made easier because we have deep relationships with the communities that suffered the most. Golden LEAF staff do not need GPS to travel to Lumberton, Fair Bluff, Kinston, Princeville, Fayetteville, Windsor or Seven Springs. We know how to help these communities that lost multiple resources all at once. We provide grants that are critical to restore a community like funding for a new library in Windsor and money to rebuild a destroyed cooperative extension center in Lenoir County.
In Fair Bluff where the Lumber River rose downtown to unprecedented levels, taking numerous municipal buildings with it, one Golden LEAF grant has been deployed to rebuild the volunteer fire and rescue department outside of a floodplain helping to restore public safety to this community.
Our role is a small part of the overall effort to assist the individuals and communities devastated by the storm. But we cannot accomplish our mission of economic transformation and opportunity if we forget the harm done that lingers long after headlines cease.
Golden LEAF is honored and grateful to be entrusted with this responsibility. Our leaders realize this will take the time, and we will devote that time and more to this effort.
Dan Gerlach has served as president of the Golden LEAF Foundation since October 2008.