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House bill to shore up flood-prone areas clears House committee

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

Legislation that would spend $220 million in part to shore up highways, rivers and coastal areas prone to flooding so that North Carolina can better withstand the next big storm cleared a House committee on Tuesday.

Some environmental groups also gave their support to the proposed “Disaster Relief and Mitigation Act,” pushed in part by Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican. Historic flooding during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018 destroyed homes and businesses near swollen rivers and wrecked dams and lakes.

“This is one of the largest proactive statewide investments to flood mitigation that North Carolina’s ever made,” Bell told the House Environment Committee before the panel recommended the measure without opposition. “It will help us get out of the costly cycle of spending after disasters … We know that every dollar spent on pre-disaster mitigation saves dollars in the future.”

The bill includes close to $70 million for improvements along the Lumber and Neuse rivers and for some private land buyouts. The bill earmarks some of these funds to help certain communities harmed by these recent storms — even some whose very survival was threatened.

For example, there would be $3.5 million to build a levee in Fair Bluff, which was overrun by the Lumber River during Matthew and Florence. With $5.2 million, a levee also would be built to protect Seven Springs, whose recent flooding history along the Neuse River goes back to Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Bell said these and other communities are still worth saving, even as homeowners and businesses in other flood-prone areas have decided to leave for good.

There are “new opportunities” to rebuild in a smarter way, Bell told reporters. “You can’t give up on home.” The bill also contains $14 million for dam repair in Boiling Spring Lakes and $5 million to address waterfront storm damage in Southport. Both are in Brunswick County.

The state Office of Recovery and Resiliency, created in late 2018 and designed to distribute long-term federal recovery dollars following those storms, would take on expanded duties if the legislation became law. Bell said the bill would allow the Division of Emergency Management to focus fully on handling preparations for approaching storms and to respond to their immediate aftermaths. Both agencies are within Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration.

The Recovery and Resiliency office would become the state’s lead agency to address flooding prevention and mitigation efforts. The office also would be directed to come up with a “statewide flood resilience blueprint” for major watersheds. Bell said the bill reflects input from leaders in North Carolina communities that have taken the brunt of recent storms.

The measure has support from the Environmental Defense Fund and state leaders from other conservation groups — a rare occurrence since Republicans took over the General Assembly a decade ago.

“We are glad to see this bill’s forward-looking and coordinated approach to resilience,” Will Robinson with The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina told the committee. “We appreciate the sponsors’ commitment to natural solutions as one tool in the tool box to … make our state more prepared for floods.”

The measure, which now heads to another committee locates $30 million for coastal storm mitigation and $20 million for grants to restore flood plains and wetlands. Another $20 million also would go to grants for state and local governments and nonprofits to shore up roads and assess their risks to disasters.

Tuesday’s committee debate didn’t address reasons for increasing coastal and riverside flooding from both hurricanes and smaller storms, such as climate change. Bell said doing so would have turned the discussion “into a political and an ideological battle.”

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