Disaster recovery bill nears final passage

— A $200 million disaster recovery bill easily cleared the Senate Wednesday morning and appeared on track to pass the General Assembly by the end of the day.

After the 49-0 vote, the legislation needs one final approval in the House before heading to Gov. Pat McCrory.

The measure isn’t expected to be the last work on disaster recovery. October’s Hurricane Matthew caused an estimated $2 billion in damage in eastern counties. November wildfires in the western part of the state were less deadly but destroyed forest land and required thousands of hours of firefighters’ time. At least one more separate disaster recovery bill will be developed next year, lawmakers said, adding that the current bill represents a best estimate of what is needed until then.

“At the end of the day, we are just taking a shot in the dark, if you want to be honest about it,” said Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson.

As he did before the House budget committee on Tuesday, McCrory urged lawmakers to pass help quickly.

“This hurricane did not even spare the dead,” McCrory told members of the Senate budget committee, recalling how he saw municipal workers corralling a casket that had been washed out of the ground by Matthew.

The need for short-term housing assistance, he said, was particularly acute because federal funding for hotels would run out in early January.

“We can’t have these people go out on the street during the holidays. That is not the North Carolina way,” McCrory said.

Senators generally praised the bill as a good “bridge” until the fuller scope of disaster needs were more fully known next year. Particularly with regard to cost from the hurricane, Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said that reliable tallies for the total costs and needs won’t be available until the spring.

“This is a bridge to get us until we know what the needs really are,” Brown said.

Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, called the measure “a reasonable start,” but he did ask that Democrats be more involved in the second phase of the plan.

The array of programs available to help hurricane survivors is daunting, said Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash. She said the bill should have provided funding for specialists who could help people navigate their choices, particularly those who may be deciding between rebuilding or moving. Emergency management officials, she said, are applying to the federal government for that kind of help.

“It is painful to me that we may go eight weeks without that,” Bryant said.

Brown and Jackson said other parts of the bill may address the needs that Bryant was talking about.

A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.