Two Years After Hurricane Matthew, $0 of $236 Million in Disaster Relief Grants Have Been Spent

RALEIGH – If you needed any further proof that government is slow and ineffective, look no further than recent reports about the handling of disaster relief funds to stemming from the damage caused to Eastern North Carolina communities by Hurricane Matthew almost two years ago.

“A report released by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development in late March shows North Carolina has yet to spent any of $236 million grant intended to help fund recovery efforts from Hurricane Matthew.

The state was awarded the community development block grant for disaster recovery, known as CDBG-DR, last fall.

Both North Carolina and South Carolina received CDBG-DR funding at the same time in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated communities in rural, eastern portions of both states.

Now, a debate could be had about the merit of spending one taxpayer’s money to bail out another that was an unfortunate victim of a natural disaster, but then again the State expropriates and redistributes all sorts of moneys. Disaster relief enjoys popular support and politicians work doggedly to make sure they can bring home the bacon when it comes to federal relief grants.

However, South Carolina is way ahead of the Old North State when it comes to distributing the funds from the Fed. So what is different about us? Leadership in the executive branch, it seems.

[JR Sanderson, director of the South Carolina Disaster Recovery Office] said he has the ability to move so quickly is because he has strong support from elected leaders in the state.

We have real good political support, real good top cover from the Department of Commerce,” Sanderson said. “Certainly the governor saying ‘we need to recover South Carolina’ helps beat the bureaucracy in some ways.”

Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), in this case a specialized version for Disaster Relief, are accepted from the Feds by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Commerce, in turn, is an executive agency whose leadership ranks are appointed by the governor.

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For years, CDBG funds were poorly managed and often piled up in Commerce coffers. In the case of Disaster relief, though, unspent funds mean more time in FEMA trailers for those pushed out of their home by Hurricane Matthew.

So, when reporters came knocking on Roy Cooper’s door to get answers about why the funds were sitting idle, they clammed up.

“A week before this story was to air on TV and be published online, WBTV asked both the North Carolina Governor’s Office and the North Carolina Office of Emergency Management for an on-camera interview so we could ask a state leader about the slow pace of recovery.

Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for NCEM first said she was checking a schedule to possibly arrange such an interview but ultimately declined.

Instead, Jarema sent an email with talking points not responsive to any of WBTV’s questions but did say the state expects “the first participants to receive assistance next month.”

Neither Jarema nor a spokesman for Governor Roy Cooper’s office responded to a follow-up inquiry specifically asking about why the state had yet to spend any of the $236 million CDBG-DR grant money.”

After the story was published though, the Cooper administration thought it better to do some damage control and Director of Emergency Management Mike Sprayberry submitted to an interview in Raleigh.

Now, by all accounts Sprayberry is a stand up guy and dedicated public servant. The former Marine has headed up disaster relief operations for several years, and a was a deputy director before that. The bottleneck is most certainly not occurring on account of Sprayberry.

The leaders above him, however, and the bureaucracy they lead is fair game for putting on the hot seat. State lawmakers grilled state officials Monday at a hearing to discuss disaster relief progress, and they focused a lot of frustration on the fact that this $236 million has not been touched.

House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) chaired the committee and wanted answers about the executive agencies dragging their feet.

“Why are we almost two years behind?! [… ] You have left these people in limbo for 18 months now.”

Bell voiced concerns about the slow pace, saying that the State could lose the funds if they are not distributed quickly enough, and improperly disbursing the funds could result in having to pay them back to the Feds.

He also raised questions about the qualifications of ESP Associates, which was awarded a contract for disaster relief services. Bell said, by his research, ESP had never handled such an operation and he wondered just why they were chosen when plenty of other options existed.

Those questions went largely unanswered, as bureaucrats bumbled about an alphabet soup of government programs and processes. We suspect though, that Bell, and other coastal lawmakers are not done asking tough questions of the Cooper administration regarding the slow progress in distributing these funds.

Their concerns may be warranted. After all, Cooper has a history of pooling millions of dollars under his control in to apparently distribute in ways that will benefit his political career.

 

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