By Anne Blythe

Gail Covington, a family nurse practitioner who tends to people’s health needs on the Outer Banks through her Island Mobile Health Care, was doing some work in Raleigh this week. That’s where she heard that both General Assembly chambers had approved a long-awaited disaster relief bill that could bring needed aid to Ocracoke Island, her home.

The Storm Recovery Act, adopted with overwhelming support in the House and the Senate, would add another $180 million in state funds for relief efforts related to hurricanes Dorian, Florence and Matthew.

Now House Bill 200 goes to Gov. Roy Cooper, who raised concerns on Thursday afternoon about added language in the bill that his office thought would shift control of any money the state receives for lawsuit settlements to the General Assembly.

Sen. Phil Berger’s (R-Eden) office disputed Cooper’s claims.

As of Thursday evening, it was unclear whether Cooper would sign or veto the relief package.

Covington, who says any trip off Ocracoke is at least a two-hour ferry ride away, said many on Ocracoke are displaced and uncertain what awaits them.

It’s a cliffhanger that has made many weary.

Still displaced

“There are so many who have been impacted on Ocracoke who are older,” Covington said. ”They are on Social Security and don’t have the money to rebuild. Anything will help.”

The bill includes $1.7 million for Hyde County to repair a school Dorian-damaged on Ocracoke.

Nearly $121 million is state-matching funds for recovery efforts underway in eastern North Carolina after hurricanes Dorian, Florence and Matthew left wide swaths of destruction during the past three years.

shows a truck driving through high water on Ocracoke during Hurricane Dorian
A truck travels up Friendly Ridge Road on Ocracoke through thigh-deep water on the morning of Sept. 6, just after winds pushed as much as 7 feet of water from the Pamlico Sound onto Ocracoke. Photo credit: Connie Leinbach/ Ocracoke Observer

Many people remain displaced from the flooding those storms caused, a source of stress that can lead to health problems.

Rett Newton, the Beaufort mayor, was glad to hear that relief might be coming soon, but he would like to see the conversation shift to one about climate change and the more frequent major storms that come with it.

“In addition to helping these families fully recover… I would like to see more talking about resilience,” Newton said Thursday. “We do need to help these families that are in need, but we need to look at how to prepare for these storms that are going to come more frequently.

“Truly this is one of our most critical issues, and this is not just unique to our coastal communities.”

House Bill 200 includes nearly $59 million to help with projects and other efforts underway to help North Carolina better prepare for major storms.

It also has a $20 million appropriation to fund the Rural Health Care Stabilization Act which passed earlier this month. The money is to be used to help struggling rural hospitals that might need support to stay afloat. Legislators from Randolph County have been eager to see this funding approved as their local hospital is likely to be first in line for the aid.

Who decides who gets money

A big question circulating among people who live along the coast and inland areas that have seen more and more flooding is who decides how the funds will be distributed and how quickly those decisions will be made.

“Is it the same people who try and decide who’s getting things now?” Covington asked.

A mobile unit with the Ocracoke Health Center sign in front. The center operates here in the wake of flooding brought by Hurricane Dorian.
The mobile clinic left on Ocracoke by the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety for use by the local health center. Photo credit: Connie Leinbach/ Ocracoke Observer

Ocracoke, which was walloped by Hurricane Dorian and a seven-foot storm surge that flowed from the Pamlico Sound, has been hampered by the difficulties of getting to the island.

“People are living in all kinds of places,” Covington said. Some are in vacation rentals but worried what might happen with the island set to open to tourists again later this month.

Dorian flooded HVAC systems and with few electricians on Ocracoke, there has been a backlog of repair work needs. A lot of people don’t have heat.

The limited ferry service also puts some people in a situation where if they need medical care off the island, they might have to wait until the next day for transport.

The Ocracoke Health Center was flooded and has set up temporary shop while repairs are underway.

Steve Evans, a co-owner of Beach Pharmacy on the Outer Banks, has seen his business flood four times in the 28 years he has been there.

The 68-year-old pharmacist has developed a rhythm for cleaning up after major storms wreak havoc on the communities lining North Carolina’s northeastern coastline.

“This time was not so bad,” Evans said, referring to the flooding from Hurricane Dorian, which was only 10 inches deep in his store.

But Evans has flood insurance. He worries about the people on Ocracoke Island who might not.

“They cannot afford flood insurance,” Evans said, lauding the bill to release state matching funds. “For the people of Ocracoke, this is just a lifeblood.”

What happens now?

In the afternoon before the House put the Storm Recovery Act to its first chamber vote on Thursday, the governor’s office sent out a news release titled, “Republicans Sneak Political Power Grab into Disaster Recovery Bill.”

The release stated that “controversial language” from the state budget bill that Cooper vetoed in late June has been sneaked into the Storm Recovery Act.

“This would put programs for education and the environment at risk, including Volkswagen diesel settlement funds, opioid settlements, and even private gifts to universities and community colleges,” the release said.

“Republicans should be ashamed for using storm survivors as political pawns in their latest power grab,” Megan Thorpe, a spokesperson for the governor, said in the statement. “These families deserve help, and Governor Cooper realizes the critical importance of the disaster funding portion of this bill.”

Later in the day, a Berger spokesperson issued a response titled, “Reality Check: Governor is Wrong on Disaster Bill Provision.”

“The Governor’s Office omitted critical text from the provision in its press release: ‘…except as otherwise specifically provided by law,’” the news release from Berger spokesperson Lauren Horsch reads. “It does not apply to situations that are already contemplated in state law, which is every situation that the Governor described in his press release.

“The provision simply re-affirms what state law is – money received by the state goes to the state treasury, unless state law says otherwise,” according to the statement. “The provision mirrors current state law, so any entities that currently receive state funds outside the treasury would continue to do so.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican, offered an explanation for how the language was added to the bill on Twitter amid the volley of rhetoric between the offices of the governor and senate leader.

There has been a protracted struggle between Cooper and the lawmakers over control of $92 million that North Carolina received as part of an agreement Volkswagen entered years ago to settle claims related to its emission scandal.

“It was originally in the budget,” McGrady tweeted, “and I suspect it was put there to address issues involving both the (Volkswagen) settlement and potentially any Atlantic Coast Pipeline mitigation fund.”

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.