Perfect Storm: With an above-average hurricane season forecasted in the midst of a global pandemic, how local officials plan to have the cash on hand to respond

Hurricane Preparedness During COVID

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - In many ways, Wilmington is still recovering from Hurricane Florence, at least financially.

Clean up and repairs cost the city upwards of $33 million ― some of which has been reimbursed by FEMA, but not all.

The expenses also cut into the city’s robust general fund balance, or rainy-day fund, cutting the city’s emergency monies by half.

For other parts of Southeastern North Carolina the budgetary effects were even more significant.

With revenues expected to take a hit, thanks to reduced sales tax, room occupancy tax and now coronavirus-fueled stay-at-home orders, preparing for another hurricane season becomes more financially challenging.

“COVID-19 has definitely added a wrinkle to our hurricane preparedness,” said Carolina Beach Town Manager Bruce Oakley.

Oakley was hired in part due to the town’s ongoing financial troubles, which included a significant hit to the town’s fund balance that prompted an inquiry from the Local Government Coalition.

He said the town’s fund balance has been on the mend but they are having to factor reduced revenue into next year’s budget, which is in its final stages of production.

“Although our revenues have been adversely affected by COVID-19, we are monitoring our spending and trying to get through the rest of the fiscal year without touching our fund balance." As we prepare our new budget, we are delaying some projects and large purchases until the economic forecast improves and hope not to use any fund balance so we are more than adequately prepared for hurricane season.

Pender County anticipates some significant belt-tightening as well.

According to a spokesperson, Hurricane Florence “severely” affected the county’s fund balance.

The majority of the expenditures made in response to the storm have not been reimbursed by FEMA or the state and the pandemic is only making matters worse.

“We are predicting COVID-19 will create a shortfall with current fiscal year revenue projects in the range of $2-3 million,” spokesperson Tammy Proctor relayed on behalf of the budget office.

Next year, with the expected revenue drop, they could be facing a $5-6 million shortfall, meaning they would need to dip into an already reduced fund balance in order to maintain county services at their current level.

Wilmington has more of a cushion, but Mayor Bill Saffo said they are still watching things closely because it isn’t out of the question that the area could receive multiple major storms in the same year.

“The city over the years has always made certain that we had enough fund balance, because what we have seen in past hurricanes, you know, sometimes they may hit back-to-back,” he said. "We always have to prepare for them, because we know if one hits, we’re gonna have to clean up this this community as quickly as possible, get the community back on its feet as quickly as possible, and that takes money.”

City staff are expected to present the 2021 budget at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, but Saffo said he believes the city is in good enough financial shape to weather a storm this year, should one come along.

The adopted 2020 budget would have the city ending the year with a little more than $20 million in reserves, or about 20% of the annual budget. Saffo said that could change depending on how badly tax revenues are affected by the pandemic. He feels there is enough of a cushion and that the city is prepared.

“We’re as prepared as we can be,” he said.

However, Saffo said hurricane preparedness goes beyond the money to pay for debris hauling and roof repairs.

Things like shelters and evacuations will be more challenging when factoring in social distancing requirements and the need for personal protective equipment and extra cleaning supplies.

Saffo also said the public should take special care in preparing things like multiple evacuation plans as some areas may see hotels fill up faster due to the pandemic and certain emergency supplies may be in high demand.

“We just ask our citizens to really take heed this year; the fact that we’re dealing with a pandemic and hurricane season upon us to, to listen to what you folks [in the media] are sharing with them, as well as their emergency operations folks that are helping us plan for this in the event that we might have this," he said.

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