NC hurricane, flooding response: GOP lawmakers question top Cooper official

North Carolina is typically hit by major hurricanes or tropical storms a few times a year. Gov. Roy Cooper has been in charge of the response to nearly two dozen storms that hit during or just before his two terms as governor, most notably Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.
Posted 2024-01-22T22:30:00+00:00 - Updated 2024-01-23T18:11:19+00:00

Republican state lawmakers questioned a top Cooper administration leader Tuesday morning over North Carolina’s hurricane recovery efforts — specifically, what the state is doing right now to help mitigate flooding from future storms.

As of last year, several thousand North Carolinians still hadn’t received the help they were promised to rebuild their homes following flooding and other storm damage that happened years ago. While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has at times blamed the federal government for the slow response, Republicans have said much of the blame lies with Cooper.

North Carolina is typically hit by major hurricanes or tropical storms a few times a year. Cooper’s administration has been in charge of the response to nearly two dozen such storms that hit during or just before his two terms as governor, most notably Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.

The two storms were among the worst to hit North Carolina in recorded history, killing dozens and causing widespread flooding that damaged roads, homes and businesses to the tune of billions of dollars.

Many of the people who suffered damage in Florence were still waiting on their promised recovery money from Matthew. Some are still waiting.

Republican lawmakers requested testimony from several people involved in storm response including Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser, who spoke under oath Tuesday at the legislature’s Hurricane Response and Recovery oversight subcommittee meeting. She's leading a project called Blueprint, which she described as an attempt to anticipate future flooding from storms that will be the most comprehensive such effort in any state in the country, once complete.

"We're creating a novel product on a very ambitious timeline," Biser said. The Blueprint project will likely continue to be tweaked over the coming years, she added, with an ultimate goal of creating a system that the state can use for generations to mitigate flooding from future storms, hopefully saving lives and preventing damage.

"The decisions that we make from it will not only protect ourselves and our communities, but our children, and our childrens' children," Biser said.

Some GOP lawmakers on the committee, however, were less than happy to hear the project was still only available as a rough draft, after 13 months of work and $1.9 million in state funding for that piece of the project. The 2024 hurricane season begins in just over four months, on June 1.

"Two million dollars, on a very rough, rough draft? That's probably not the best use of taxpayer money," said Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, a top-ranking Republican leader who also serves as co-chair of Tuesday's subcommittee.

The other co-chair, top Senate budget writer Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, spoke about his desire to see DEQ balance speedy delivery with a quality project.

"We want to make sure we spend this money wisely," Jackson told Biser Tuesday "But at the same token, we want to get things moving."

Biser said the agency's working to be fast but also thorough, and could use more funding from the legislature to speed things along. The state has invested $20 million in the project over the last several years — a small percentage of the state budget that now exceeds $30 billion per year — with the promise of $96 million in funding once the draft plan is finished.

The 2023 state budget gave the Blueprint project $494,000, starting this month, to hire six temporary employees. Biser told lawmakers those jobs have not been filled yet; Bell encouraged her to speed up that hiring process.

Storms expected to keep getting worse

In both her sworn testimony Tuesday and in written remarks provided ahead of time to the legislature, Biser said hurricanes have become stronger in recent years, and will likely continue on that trend. On top of that, she said, some rivers have even begun flooding after moderate rains, not even a major storm.

Those factors have pushed the state to "work as fast as humanly possible to get this project out," Biser told Jackson.

“This is a historic endeavor, as we build a first-of-its-kind program to take a comprehensive, statewide approach to flood resiliency, she told lawmakers Tuesday at the start of her testimony. "And, I will tell you, we’re honored that this responsibility was entrusted to DEQ."

Data shows that hurricanes have gotten stronger in recent decades — a trend scientists attribute to climate change causing warmer seas.

According to a 2022 NASA report, “global climate models predict hurricanes will likely cause more intense rainfall and have an increased coastal flood risk due to higher storm surge caused by rising seas. Additionally, the global frequency of storms may decrease or remain unchanged, but hurricanes that form are more likely to become intense.”

Biser, who became the state’s top environmental official in 2021, wrote to state lawmakers that she also expects hurricanes, and the flooding that can continue for days afterward, to get worse.

“We’re experiencing more frequent and more intense storm events,” she wrote to lawmakers ahead of the meeting. “Hurricanes and tropical storms such as Fred, Florence, Michael and Matthew have caused billions of dollars of damage and loss of life, and we know it’s a matter of when, not if, we see another storm of that magnitude.”

Over the most of his seven years as governor, North Carolina’s track record on hurricane response — particularly the long waits people have faced to receive funding to rebuild — has been viewed by Republican leaders as one of Cooper’s biggest political weaknesses.

“When North Carolina needed help in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, devastated communities and displaced families found out that they couldn’t count on Governor Roy Cooper,” the Republican Governor’s Association wrote in an ad against Cooper during the 2020 elections.

The ad didn’t work; Cooper won reelection by a wide margin that year. But the scrutiny on North Carolina’s hurricane relief efforts has kept up.

In 2022, an audit by the Biden administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development found that while North Carolina had been awarded $237 million for Hurricane Matthew Recovery efforts, the state had taken just $145 million — leaving another $91 million untouched even six years later. The audit also identified problems with the way the state hired and oversaw at least some private vendors in charge of much of the on-the-ground work.

Two employees of a vendor company, AECOM, have also been asked to testify at Tuesday’s oversight hearing.