Governor Cooper and leaders from his administration were in Eastern North Carolina on Tuesday to discuss several issues affecting the region.
The meeting, held at the North Carolina History Center in New Bern, highlighted the region’s challenges, such as economic development, lack of broadband access, public safety and health care. Discussion at the meeting focused on Hurricane Florence recovery in Eastern North Carolina.
“One thing that has been glaring to me is that those who can least afford it have been hit the hardest,” said Governor Roy Cooper. “And this hurricane just put a magnifying glass on challenges that existed even before it got here. Challenges of affordable housing and local rural counties being able to afford to build public schools.”
During the meeting, Mike Sprayberry, the director of North Carolina Emergency Management said the shutdown won’t disrupt FEMA recovery funds. However, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disaster assistance won’t become available until the shutdown ends. Meanwhile, the state is working with FEMA to help people return to their homes through the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Program.
“Before they get permanent repairs done to their homes, we can go in there and put in some sheetrock, appliances and things like that. And what we’ve done is that we’ve requested an extension to apply to that and we received one. So that extension goes until February 1st,” said Sprayberry.
15,748 people in 12 Eastern North Carolina counties are eligible for the STEP program, but Sprayberry says 1,724 people have signed up. More than four months since Hurricane Florence, 298 North Carolinians are still living in hotels and 570 people are in FEMA travel trailers or mobile units.
Michael Regan, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said during the meeting that their agency is addressing recovery along the coastline with $18 million allocated for storm damage mitigation. The state has provided $11.6 million in assistance to help the commercial fishing industry recover from Florence, said Regan.
“As of January 8th, almost 50% of those eligible have responded and we work diligently to ensure that every family applies and that the checks are delivered to account for some of the lost income from September to November when the hurricane hit them the hardest.”
The North Carolina Division of Coastal Management has awarded grants to address erosion in Beaufort County. Hurricane Florence also damaged nearly all coastal historic sites, museums and state parks, according to Susie Hamilton, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
“Thankfully, all of them have reopened. However, since the storm, our state parks have seen a 7% decrease in visitation. Compared to the previous year, it’s about 1.4 million less visitors. Visitation at the aquariums is down 4%. Historic site visitation has decreased by 1%. Tryon Palace itself has seen a decrease of 24%.”
Hamilton says the decline in visitation has resulting in significant lost revenues, bringing the total cost of storm preparation and repairs at those locations to $4.6 million.
In addition to the challenges facing Eastern North Carolina before and after Hurricane Florence, Governor Roy Cooper and cabinet secretaries discussed opportunities for growth in the region, including expanding manufacturing, building new community colleges, and improving transportation coming in the next year. Jim Trogdon, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said NCDOT was able to accelerate the widening of U.S. 70 from Pollocksville to Maysville by six months.
“That will be complete this fall. The Greenville Southwest Bypass, that will also be complete this fall. Havelock Bypass, you know, I’d hate to say that we could be in litigation for two and a half to three more years, we settled that through mediation so we’ll be awarding a contract in February and we’ll start construction this summer on the Havelock Bypass.”
Trogdon said 359 transportation projects in Eastern North Carolina are slated to begin construction in the next five years.
Listen to audio from the cabinet meeting: