SUNSET BEACH, NC (WECT) - The North Carolina Emergency Managers Association had its annual conference scheduled in Sunset Beach long before Hurricane Florence shined a spotlight on the industry, but an amended agenda reflected the storm’s significance.
Governor Roy Cooper (D) and FEMA Administrator Brock Long gave the opening remarks at the conference Monday, thanking the emergency management teams and first responders for their work during the storm.
The governor and federal official also discussed where the region goes from here, and how they hope improvements can be made to address the frustrations thousands have expressed at the relief and recovery process.
Housing for those displaced by the storm has been a significant concern. Strong said as of Monday, 12 families had been placed in the direct housing program, the measure that provides mobile homes or trailers for people to live in while their home is repaired, and more are on the way. Especially, he said, in Pender County and Onslow County, two places hit hard by flooding that some feel have been forgotten or overlooked compared to Brunswick Couny, New Hanover County or the Wilmington.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s concentration necessarily on Brunswick or New Hanover — there are more people there, so there may be more money going there for the increased number of people,” Cooper said.
Long said Pender and Onslow counties were targeted for the first FEMA direct housing units, for the very fact they were among the hardest hit.
The delay, both Cooper and Long said, can be traced to the “unique problems” each different area experienced. While flooding may have been the biggest issue in Pender County, wind damage and debris were significant in new Hanover County.
“But we are concentrating in all the areas,” Cooper said.
On top of the delay of housing for those displaced by the storm, frustrations have abounded about the “denial” letters received by those who have applied for financial assistance, and the delay in getting assistance in the first place.
“We walk a fine line between the Office of Inspector General and protecting the public purse, but also rushing and expediting to get assistance into the hands of citizens," Long said. "So we try to lean toward getting that money in, but we also have to be very careful.”
As to the denial letters, FEMA external affairs spokesperson Rebecca Kelly likened the process to someone living in a village that has experienced a natural disaster, and your relative wants to help. That relative cannot make everyone in the village whole or replace everything for everyone. What he can do, she said, is help you fix your roof, or help that isolated group of neighbors get access to internet or a place stay temporarily. Just like you would need to ask that relative for help, you need to ask FEMA for help, Kelly said.
For some, however, the process of asking for that help is just too complicated.
“I agree,” Long said, “I totally agree.”
He said one of the goals of FEMA’s recent strategic planning process was to make FEMA individual assistance processes less complicated, but it won’t happen overnight.
“It’s going to take legislative changes to streamline the individual assistance program,” Long said. “But we are willing, and making an effort, to reduce the complexity."
Long said it isn’t up to just him or his department to get that process starting. He said it will take the opinions of state directors, local emergency management teams and congress to really see noticeable improvement.
In the meantime, however, people still need help.
Long and Cooper urged those who are struggling with the process to go to one of the 20 disaster recovery centers throughout the region, and keep pushing through the multiple “denial” letters they might receive. Long said much of that process is contingent on insurance companies finalizing their benefit payouts, which can slow down the process even more.
Cooper said the state needs to put more of a focus on investing in pre-storm efforts to lessen the impact of future Hurricanes.
“We know that we aren’t dealing with 500-year floods anymore, that this is going to be a more frequent occurrence," Cooper said.
After dealing with both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence in less than two years, Cooper said attention has to be paid to shoring-up infrastructure such as roads and dams, but also evaluating if some residential areas need to be bought out.
“We’re looking to a recovery effort where North Carolina rebuilds smarter and stronger,” Cooper said, reiterating sentiments he has expressed on several of his trips to the Cape Fear region after Hurricane Florence. That will be the job of the new Office of Recovery and Resilience, a program the state began along with the initial funding for hurricane relief.
Part of that department’s responsibility, Cooper said, will be ensuring that the delays experienced with relief funding after Hurricane Matthew are not repeated.
“I think you’re going to see a significant difference," he said.
Those who are still waiting on that Matthew funding, Cooper said, need to be the top priority.
Cooper said schools and farmers also need to be prioritized when the next round of state budgets are considered, or possibly before, when the general assembly returns on Nov. 27.
“Help can never come quick enough for people who have been hit by a hurricane,” Cooper said.