RALEIGH (WECT) - Local and regional leaders were in Raleigh on Wednesday to lobby state legislators for more state funding for Hurricane Florence recovery efforts.
The Eastern NC Disaster Recovery & Resiliency Alliance, consisting of local government and regional Chamber of Commerce leaders, unveiled “a set of priorities for lawmakers to consider as the state’s new budget is being developed.”
Leaders from several counties, cities and towns in southeastern North Carolina are part of the alliance, including Wilmington, Pender County, Onslow County, Lenoir County, New Bern, Jacksonville, Kinston, Columbus County, Bladen County, Wallace, Whiteville, Lumberton, Robeson County, Burgaw, Boiling Spring Lakes, Belville, Surf City and Topsail Beach.
The five priorities are:
- Expedite resources to critical transportation and infrastructure impacted by natural disasters that specifically impacts public safety.
- Invest in public infrastructure before storms to reduce “overall risk to population and critical structures."
- Increase state resources for stream, tributary management to reduce severe flooding.
- Assign a significant portion of remaining state recovery money and/or future appropriations to new construction of affordable housing and continue to improve rating and scoring preference on tax credit projects in disaster declared counties.
- Think about asking state officials to “engage federal partners in a working group” to help recovery related processes and “seek to reduce bureaucratic red tape that expedites recovery processes.”
According to Rep. Holly Grange (R), the initiative started out of Wilmington because it is a central, populated area of southeastern NC, and has an airport and a port.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said many local leaders, including himself, traveled to Washington, D.C., a couple of times to lobby for federal help recovering from Florence. He said they decided to work together and form a group to ask state leaders for disaster recovery help.
“We wanted to see what we can do to leverage our voices to get our legislators here in the state of North Carolina as well as our federal delegation to pay closer attention to us, to understand the needs that we have as communities, but more importantly, see what we can do to combat the issues we are all facing," Saffo said.
Grange said the group is meant to work together to bridge the urban and rural divide, and Sen. Harper Peterson (D) stressed keeping politics out of the discussion.
“Our world has changed and we need to come together in a non-political way," Peterson said of natural disaster recovery. “This is a crisis that will continue and repeat itself.”
Several local leaders said they have depleted most of the money in their fund balances. According to Mayor Pro Tem Steven Barger of Boiling Spring Lakes, the town had $21 million worth of damage, which he said is more than the town balance allocates for disaster recovery.
Local leaders said they want state lawmakers to understand the magnitude of this crisis, and they can’t get back on their feet without state help.
“The further you get sometimes from an event, from a disaster, sometimes the more you want to forget it, but they’re going to happen again, and I think it’s important that we remember it and as a group," Rep. Carson Smith (R) from District 16 said. “Hopefully, we’ll help ourselves remember it and do things now that we know will help, that we know will help in the future.”
Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann said several business owners have moved shops out of downtown after being flooded by hurricanes Florence and Matthew. He asked state leaders to “cut the red tape we have to go through to get state money.”
Some leaders in the coalition couldn’t make it to Raleigh on Wednesday, including some from Bladen County. When WECT asked if repairs to the White Oak dike that breached after Florence is included in the group’s plans, Saffo said it won’t be ruled out, but added they need insight from those in that area to help fix it.
“(Leaders in Bladen County) obviously have to speak specifically to that because they know the exact locations (where it breached) and they know exactly what needs to be done to put this dike back into place, but they have significant concerns because the federal government has walked away from that project," Saffo said. “I know it’s a significant infrastructure component to alleviate flooding in that part of North Carolina, and it must be put back into place and fixed."
Following the press conference, alliance members met with lead House and Senate appropriators to talk more about storm relief priorities. They plan to have more meetings to implement their goals.