Victims a second time: First Hurricane Florence, now the government shutdown

In this Sept. 17, 2018, file photo, Bob Richling carries Iris Darden, 84, out of her flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C.
In this Sept. 17, 2018, file photo, Bob Richling carries Iris Darden, 84, out of her flooded home in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Spring Lake, N.C. AP

Think the government shutdown is an inside-the-Beltway dispute with few real effects? Try telling that to the millions of Carolinians hammered by Hurricanes Florence and Matthew who are not getting disaster relief money because of this confrontation.

Not one, not two, but at least three pots of disaster recovery money would be flowing to North Carolina were it not for the shutdown. Without it, homes remain damaged and in harm’s way, businesses are left unrepaired and water and sewer and electrical lines that need attention are neglected.

In a rare act of bipartisanship and quickness, Congress passed a bill on Sept. 26, less than two weeks after Florence made landfall. It authorized $1.68 billion in Florence disaster relief, including $1.14 billion tentatively targeted to North Carolina.

Not a penny of that has made it to the state, and it won’t as long as the government is shut down. Here’s how the process works: Congress approves the spending, then the Department of Housing and Urban Development allocates specific amounts to each state based on a needs assessment. HUD then writes a Federal Register notice that spells out how the states are to use the money. Then the state writes a more detailed action plan that HUD has to approve.

One big problem: HUD is closed. The shutdown has furloughed most HUD workers, so the disaster money is frozen. Only an end to the shutdown will get it moving.

Another pot of money is similarly frozen. Last April, HUD promised North Carolina $168 million in “mitigation” money to help recover from Hurricane Matthew. That money would be used to make changes now that would minimize damage in the next big storm. It ran into bureaucratic delays and now is stalled because of the shutdown.

Now, perhaps, the biggest shutdown punch: On Wednesday, the U.S. House approved $12 billion for disaster recovery, and much of that is intended for North Carolina. The bill passed 237-187, with six Republicans joining Democrats in favor. But the legislation included a provision that would reopen parts of the government for several weeks, and one that would bar spending on a border wall. Those components make the bill dead on arrival in the Republican U.S. Senate. So those billions won’t be approved, when they almost certainly would with bipartisan support absent the shutdown. House Democrats should pass a clean disaster relief bill without shutdown provisions attached.

In the meantime, North Carolinians suffer. Gov. Roy Cooper said the state suffered some $13 billion in damage from Florence. About 47 percent of those homes damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 were also damaged by Florence. More than 52,000 businesses incurred water or wind damage, and one in four N.C. households were affected. The state’s agriculture industry took a $2.4 billion hit, Cooper says.

Private insurance and federal money so far have covered only a portion of all that. The state needs help. With HUD shut down, we’re not getting it, and state officials can’t even make much progress planning for when it does arrive. President Trump and Congress need to reopen the government, and get struggling North Carolinians back on dry ground.