Cooper unveils $1.5B Florence aid package, seeks $750M now
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper asked state legislators Wednesday for $750 million toward a proposed long-term $1.5 billion Hurricane Florence recovery effort, with an early focus on housing, farms, business and schools.
The Democratic governor unveiled his request while providing new estimates for the scope of last month’s storm, which dumped more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain in some areas of southeastern North Carolina and contributed to 40 deaths in the state.
Cooper’s office calculates damage from Florence in North Carolina will be nearly $13 billion, or about equal to the damage caused by the state’s two most devastating hurricanes of the past 20 years — Floyd in 1999 and Matthew two years ago. The request would cover what the federal government and private insurance won’t, Cooper’s budget office said, and wouldn’t require any tax increases.
“The human suffering and property damage left in the wake of Florence was like nothing we have ever seen before,” Cooper said at a news conference. “An unprecedented storm requires an unprecedented response … Rebuilding smarter and stronger isn’t just an idea, it’s an obligation.”
Hundreds of millions of dollars the governor seeks would go toward pre-emptive efforts for the next big storm — as illustrated by the fact that Cooper revealed his proposal while giving an update on approaching Hurricane Michael.
“We know that can expect more extreme weather events,” he said. The Republican-controlled legislature, which will have its own ideas about the package’s amount and timing, will reconvene Monday to consider additional funding. Spokesmen for House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger said Cooper’s request was being reviewed.
The proposal will test the recent amity between Cooper and the General Assembly after nearly two years of partisan rancor.
Last week, the legislature unanimously approved, and Cooper signed into law, legislation setting aside $50 million for federal matching funds, and eased school calendar and voter registration rules in counties harmed most by Florence.
The new package seeks additional money for technology to expand the state’s computer flood modeling, which enabled emergency officials to move residents out of harm’s way as rivers crested. He also seeks gauges installed at more than 1,500 dams that would signal breaches.
And Cooper wants to expand a buyout program used after Floyd to move hog farms and their open-air waste pits off land that had never experience flooding until Florence. There would also be incentives to replace the lagoons with more expensive and environmentally favored storage. Grants to help repair and improve water and sewer systems that failed during the storm also are being requested.
Money to cover the $750 million request would come from the state’s almost $2 billion savings reserve and revenues that weren’t budgeted this year. The rest likely wouldn’t be considered until 2019, Cooper said.
The biggest chunk in the package — more than a half-billion dollars — addresses housing.
Cooper seeks $400 million to supplement anticipated federal relief funds to repair flood- and wind-damaged homes and relocate 1,000 families out of the 100-year flood plain. Another $50 million would be used to encourage affordable housing developments.
“Providing safe, affordable homes is the single-most important need,” he said.
About 74,000 homes sustained water damage and 430,000 suffered wind damage, according to flood models by the state Division of Emergency Management. About 3,800 private-sector business and nonprofit properties had water damage and 49,000 properties had wind damage, the division said.
The governor also wants $50 million to help small businesses, downtown revitalization and business recruitment and tourism to the storm-affected regions. The package also seeks $130 million for roads to match federal funds to repair and upgrade major arteries like Interstates 40 and 95, which closed for several days because of floodwaters.
Another $200 million would go in direct payments to farmers already struggling to stay in business after Hurricane Matthew two years ago. State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican, already lobbied for the program this week, but some legislators wanted more details to ensure money isn’t wasted.
Tens of millions would go toward repairing government buildings, parks and public schools and universities. Damage to the University of North Carolina at Wilmington alone is estimated at $140 million, Cooper said.