Hurricane Matthew struck eastern North Carolina on October 9, 2016.

A full 18 months later, some of the first federally funded repairs are slated to begin this June.

Hurricane Matthew has re-emerged as a political issue in Raleigh as thousands of people in eastern North Carolina await public money to rebuild.

The storm was one of the most devastating in North Carolina’s history, killing 31 people and caused more than $4.8 billion in damage. Matthew set rainfall records in 17 counties, and 2,300 people were rescued from floodwaters.

Why is recovery taking so long?

It mostly has to do with the processes set up to distribute the roughly $1.7 billion in recovery aid expected from the federal and state government.

While the initial response from the N.C. National Guard and FEMA came quickly, North Carolina has been in no hurry to distribute money intended for longer-term recovery.

And as it turns out, there’s a huge difference between money that’s been approved — and money that’s actually been used.

The breakdown of funding sources is an alphabet soup of agencies, each with its own policies and mechanisms and hoops to jump through. State governments have incentives to get roads repaired quickly. Homes, not so much.

Here’s a quick explanation of how disaster recovery works. It’s ordered by how quickly money has been distributed.

FEMA public assistance

There’s a reason that the governor makes a disaster declaration. It makes areas affected eligible for several big buckets of money through FEMA — PA (public assistance) and IA (individual assistance).

Survivors apply directly to FEMA for Individual Assistance, intended to help people whose primary residence was destroyed.

29,000 applications were received, and $99 million approved. It’s unclear how much has actually been handed out, but it appears that much of it has. This money goes out pretty fast, and helps cover things like short-term rental assistance and home repair costs.

Public Assistance goes to state and local governments and some nonprofits, which are able to apply for this money for costs incurred in disaster relief.

This money is still being meted out piece by piece, $5 million here and $5 million there. About $285 million has been allocated so far — but it’s unclear how much has actually been used.

Road repair

Both the federal Department of Transportation and FEMA provide reimbursement for road re-building in the event of an emergency.

The thresholds to qualify are fairly low — projects as cheap as $3,100 can be eligible for federal aid, and only $700,000 worth of statewide damage is needed for DOT money.

Here are some of the ways the federal government helps North Carolina rebuild roads.

  • DOT reimburses 100% for “emergency repairs” done in the first 180 days.
  • DOT reimburses 90% for other repairs on federal interstates and 80% on U.S. and N.C. highways.
  • FEMA reimburses 75% for repairs to state-maintained secondary roads and bridges.

The big federal grant program

As you can see from the chart, there’s one program that provides the largest chunk of disaster recovery money. CDBG-DR stands for Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery.

It’s intended to be long-term recovery money for homeowners.

The state is able to draw down money from the federal government after the Emergency Management department creates an action plan.

Then there’s a slow process: Homeowners apply to county, which is reimbursed by the state, which is reimbursed by the feds.

This is the program that’s received the most attention, after a news report from WBTV that not a dime of the money had been spent.

Why? Well, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. North Carolina held public meetings, got its action plan approved, set up agreements with counties, opened application centers. They’re now taking applications.

Other states like South Carolina move faster. But the first N.C. check was given to a Robeson County homeowner this spring — about a week after the news report.

There’s another sizable federal grant that’s in a similar status, the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. It’s intended for relocation and rebuilding.

The first checks delivered and first five HMGP grants awarded in April to Nash County, Moore County, Camden County and the city of Fayetteville.

Legislative acts

The state passed two Disaster Recovery Acts (in 2016 and 2017) that have each allocated $100 million toward relief for Hurricane Matthew, western wildfires and other storms.

Part of the money provides the state match for federal money. $20 million went to the state Housing Trust Fund for home repairs and rehabs.

It also gave $50 million to Golden LEAF for local governments and nonprofits to repair or replace infrastructure — water, sewer, sidewalks, storm drainage.

Very little of it has been used so far. Golden LEAF blames the process, since many projects are in bidding, design, engineering phases.

The state legislature also gave $10 million to the Commerce Department for local government grants. It’s unclear how many projects have been completed so far.

Here is a sampling of these grants to local government.

Cover photo by the North Carolina National Guard, via Flickr (Creative Commons).


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