‘Build back smarter and stronger’: Cooper wants $5B more from feds in Florence relief

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Gov. Roy Cooper asked North Carolina’s members of Congress to help secure an additional $5 billion in federal dollars for Hurricane Florence recovery, saying the state will prioritize smart and efficient solutions to a second massive flooding event in two years.

“We think it’s a reasonable ask and it’s based a lot on what Congress has done with hurricanes in the past since 2005,” said Cooper, who was in Washington, D.C., for meetings with the state’s congressional delegation.

Hurricane Florence brought record-setting rain and extreme flooding to much of Eastern North Carolina in September, battering some areas that were still recovering from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Cooper said 41 people died as a result of the hurricane, which left thousands homeless and decimated crops for many farmers.

Florence brought $17 billion in damages to the state, Cooper’s office estimated. That’s on top of $5 billion in damages from Matthew.

“One thing we know for sure, these aren’t 500-year floods. We’ve had two of them in the last 23 months, we’ve had three of them in the last 19 years; they’re not 500-year floods,” Cooper said, referencing Hurricane Floyd in 1999. “They’re coming again. We’ve got to figure out how to build back stronger and smarter. That’s one of our main goals here.”

That means buying out some homeowners in flood-prone areas and elevating the homes of others, moves that cost more up front but will save money during the next storm, Cooper said. He said some cities in the state are looking at “strategic retreat,” purchasing land farther from flood areas. Other possible solutions, he said, were creating “catch basins,” areas that could serve as public parks but would hold flood waters during storms, and possibly building dams or locks on rivers to control flooding.

“We are asking for more flexibility in being more resilient,” Cooper said.

Cooper also met with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Cooper wants a change in federal law to allow block grants from HUD to be awarded for both recoveries at one time, allowing a quicker process.

Cooper said some of the aid would be targeted to help with infrastructure, housing and farmers.

In October, Congress appropriated $1 billion for North Carolina as part of a disaster relief package. The lame-duck Congress must pass several spending bills before the end of the year to keep the government funded — and additional disaster funding could be added to them. California, which is dealing with devastating wildfires, is likely to seek additional money as well.

The North Carolina General Assembly, too, has approved $850 million in Hurricane Florence relief.

“We were able to show is our state has stepped up. We’ve appropriated money. We’ve appropriated match money,” Cooper said. “We are ready to step into the arena here and to have some skin in the game.”