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State disaster aid logjam in need of some urgent repair

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The General Assembly is returning to Raleigh for a special session this week, sooner than originally planned, to deal with Hurricane Florence. That turns out to be a good thing, because there are some problems that need fixing fast.

North Carolina can’t risk compounding what’s gone wrong with our recovery from Hurricane Matthew’s epic flooding of two years ago.

And things have gone wrong. As The New York Times reported Tuesday, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ranks this state as a “slow spender” in distributing federal block grant funding, some of which is appropriated for disaster recovery. As of Sept. 1, the Times reported, the state had spent only $2 million of a $236.5 million block grant. Only 53 families of the 1,100 who applied for the disaster-recovery grants through that program have received their money.

While the state has distributed about $750 million in other, mostly federal, aid for Hurricane Matthew recovery, the bobbling of this block grant money could snowball as the state tries to juggle the recovery from yet another storm — one that may have caused even more damage than Matthew.

In the week following Florence, 80,000 flood victims registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance. That’s double the number registering in the first week after Matthew.

State emergency management director Mike Sprayberry said in an interview with a Times reporter that, “We are really good at disaster recovery programs, hazard mitigation, helping individual people who are in trouble, but not at this kind of thing. We have had to hire and stand up a completely new staff — roughly 50, 60 new people — so this is a whole new ballgame.”

But the ballgame just became a series and it’s time to get serious about making the team a winner.

Part of the problem is that Sprayberry needs more help than he’s gotten. Lawmakers have consistently cut funding for the state’s executive branch, in part because of Republican legislative leaders’ determination to run the leanest possible government, and in part — in large part — because those same lawmakers have set a goal from the outset of making Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper fail.

People who are looking at the destruction of their homes and other property by Hurricane Florence aren’t interested in hearing about the political infighting in Raleigh. They’re begging for help. For many of them, this is the second time in two years that they’ve seen their homes and businesses wiped out by the kind of flooding we’re supposed to see only every 500 or so years. People need help, not excuses or blame games.

When the gavel falls and legislative business begins this week, the first order of business should be appropriating whatever funding is needed to oversee and coordinate the response to Florence’s flooding — and to wrap up the Matthew response in rapid fashion as well.

There are plenty of other issues to be resolved, too. That includes making sure teachers and other school personnel get paid for days when schools were closed because of the hurricane, waiving school calendar requirements so students aren’t doing makeup days into next July and dealing with the state’s own appropriation needs for disaster recovery.

It’s time, as well, to begin studying what changes in public policy this new tropical-storm reality requires. The storage of massive quantities of hazardous industrial waste, along with equally daunting amounts of swine and poultry waste, in the state’s floodplains needs to be addressed.

The flooding we’ve encountered is bad enough. But the dangerous waste products that have mixed with the floodwaters have compounded the threat to life and safety.

But first things first: We need a system that’s capable of responding to multiple disasters and distributing in timely fashion all the aid that comes our way. Build it quickly and without partisan mayhem. Or step aside and let us elect new lawmakers who can.

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