Latest

The weight of the wait: Local governments look forward to FEMA reimbursements

Local officials including (left to right) Sheriff Greg Christopher, Commissioner Brandon Rogers, Sen. Kevin Corbin and Rep. Mark Pless talk to residents of Laurel Bank Campground on Sept. 2. Cory Vaillancourt photo Local officials including (left to right) Sheriff Greg Christopher, Commissioner Brandon Rogers, Sen. Kevin Corbin and Rep. Mark Pless talk to residents of Laurel Bank Campground on Sept. 2. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The aftermath of deadly flooding that killed six people in the Cruso community of Haywood County on Aug. 16 saw federal, state and local governments spring into action. 

Congressman Madison Cawthorn was one of the first federal elected officials to show up, followed by Sen. Thom Tillis. 

Gov. Roy Cooper visited twice. So did North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore. 

Lt. Gov Mark Robinson spoke at Haywood EMS. 

State Representatives Mark Pless and Mike Clampitt, both of who represent portions of Haywood County, were a constant presence as were Haywood commissioners and Canton’s mayor and aldermen, as well as a delegation from the Town of Clyde. 

As they all worked to facilitate state and local government aid, the people who’d suffered damage during the flood, financial and physical, waited for more help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Related Items

There was no tweet of support from President Joe Biden. No visit. And for weeks, no federal disaster declaration. 

That all changed on Sept. 8, when Biden issued a major disaster declaration  for Haywood County and parts of Western North Carolina devastated by catastrophic rainfall from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred. 

In that moment 22 days after the swollen Pigeon River wrought havoc over Haywood County for the second time in less than two decades, uncertainty became relief. But not long after the declaration was issued many in the greater region returned to the question they’d been asking the whole time — why the wait? 

Putting the FEMA declaration process into perspective, 22 days did seem like a long time for a piece of paper to prove what Haywood County residents had been seeing for more than three weeks — bridges washed out, homes flooded and debris throughout Bethel, Cruso, Canton and Clyde. Six funerals. Countless stories of sacrifice and of survival. 

All along, state and county officials pleaded for patience as damage was documented so the rigorous disaster declaration process would have as much evidence as possible to proceed. 

SEE ALSO: ‘And then it was too late’: Flood warning timeline reveals challenges of mountain forecasting

“I think you have to look at it from the point of view of when the request was submitted, when FEMA had the information it needed to consider the request and then when it was granted,” said Keith Acree, a public information officer with the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management. “I think from the state’s point of view, I think this was about an average declaration period. We didn’t see it as an exorbitantly long delay. When you put it in the context of some of the things that were happening around the country at the time, it seemed like it was slow, but it was actually probably pretty typical.”

Yes and no — it was pretty typical for North Carolina, but as some slept in shelters or in ersatz cinder-block shacks in Cruso, a parade of federal declarations rained down on other states just like the rains from Tropical Storm Fred and later, Hurricane Ida. 

On Aug. 13, Fred hit Florida. An emergency declaration  was issued three days later. 

On Aug. 16, Fred began to impact  Western North Carolina, with much of the damage and all of the death coming on Aug. 17. Residents were still struggling to comprehend what’d happened on Aug. 18, but no declaration was immediately issued. 

Three days later, on Aug. 21, Tennessee was hit with deadly flooding, but received a major disaster declaration  just two days after that. 

Then came Hurricane Ida, on Aug. 26. An emergency declaration was issued for Louisiana the next day. A major disaster declaration  came two days after that. 

Mississippi saw Ida on Aug. 28. An emergency declaration  was issued the same day. 

Ida then moved to the northeast on Sept. 1. New Jersey and New York got emergency declarations the next day, and a visit from the president . Two days after that, on Sept. 5, New Jersey and New York  got major disaster declarations. 

All the while, Western North Carolina watched and hoped and prayed. Local governments moved  not inconsequential amounts of money around to begin cleanup. Local officials became frustrated with the pace of federal follow-through. 

“I’m not satisfied, period,” Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers told The Smoky Mountain News on Sept. 1. “With all due respect and prayers, and I have personally prayed for the people of Tennessee and everyone affected on the Gulf Coast, I think this has been on [the federal government’s] radar for some time.”

Acree, NCEMA’s PIO, said Gov. Cooper made the request on Aug. 27, but preliminary damage assessments weren’t complete until Sept. 2, so FEMA couldn’t “fully act” until then. The declaration came a week later. 

“I know when you look at what was happening in Louisiana and Tennessee and New York and New Jersey and the week surrounding that, we saw declarations for much larger disasters happen more quickly. I think that was a sense of frustration to some people, but for a smaller disaster like this, it was relatively close to the threshold,” Acree said. “You have to wait for all those damage assessments to come in and before you can completely evaluate it.”

Another yes and no — looking at the last 14 FEMA disaster declarations in North Carolina, not including two COVID-related declarations in 2020, the threshold for disaster declarations dating back to 2014 is unpredictable at best and depends on the type of declaration. 

When Tropical Storm Eta hit North Carolina on Nov. 12, 2020, a major disaster declaration wasn’t issued until almost four months later. 

Before that, Hurricane Isaias prompted an emergency declaration two days after landfall, but a subsequent declaration took almost three months. 

Sporadic winter storm impacts across the state beginning on Feb. 6, 2020, took three months to produce a declaration. Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties were included in the declaration. 

Some responses, like to Hurricane Florence in 2018, seemed to be faster (three and seven days for an emergency and major declaration, respectively). In fact, nine of the 14 declarations were issued less than a month from the incident date. 

“Every disaster is different. Every disaster is local. The impacts are different. The ways that communities and individuals are affected is different so it’s very hard to compare disaster to disaster,” said Danon Lucas, FEMA Region 4 public affairs officer. “The preliminary damage assessments were completed that first week of September, and then the request was made back on the 27th. However, keep in mind that normally in the course of a disaster declaration process, PDAs — preliminary damage assessments — are completed prior to a governor’s request for a declaration. So when we look at the time between when the state request was submitted on the second, and then the president’s declaration on the 8th, that’s a fairly short timeframe there.”

Many of the disasters in other states that were concurrent with Pigeon River flooding in August were put on the fast track. 

“That’s another factor when we’re talking about this disaster versus say the hurricane disasters,” Lucas said. “Those disasters had pre-landfall emergency declarations. And so some of those assessments and the way those things were to happen, happened at a faster rate just because of the type of declaration that was requested.”

Emergency declarations don’t cover all the forms of assistance that major disaster declarations do, but they also presume foresight of the incident. When a hurricane is coming, leaders in the affected areas have time to prepare. When a flash flood happens, like in Cruso, they don’t. 

“The emergency declaration is limited oftentimes, especially with hurricanes, to pre-landfall emergency services to ensure that the state and the local governments have the capability and the support to do evacuations, to do other things, to pay for things that are outside the scope of normal mission activities,” said Lucas. “That’s an emergency declaration. What a major declaration involves is an individual assistance program that provides funding, grants for housing repair and rental assistance.”

As of press time on Sept. 14, FEMA reported  approving 41 individual assistance applications good for $178,004 in housing assistance and $26,866 in “other needs.”

“That would be for individuals and households that have applied for federal assistance through FEMA and that is the amount currently, and that of course will, as more people and households apply for assistance through FEMA, go up,” Lucas said. “That can cover household items and that’s the big thing that we would say right now is that everyone who had a disaster damage loss for uninsured losses, they should apply for FEMA assistance because that’s really the first step on the road to recovery.”

The public assistance portion of the declaration will provide reimbursement to local governments and some nonprofits for expenses incurred in the process of responding to the disaster. 

“How quickly they get that reimbursement is going to somewhat depend on how quickly the local government gets paperwork together and its documentation and submits that application,” Acree said. “They do that all online through an online portal, submit all their public assistance documentation and there’s staff at the state and the FEMA level to assist them with that. Generally, it’s a pretty smooth process and they’ll have that money back usually within a few months.”

Haywood County Manager Bryant Morehead is one of those responsible for submitting the documentation to ensure the county gets back as much money as possible. 

“We are working through our county finance office, but we have a local CPA that helps on our emergency management side,” Morehead said. “So they are working together to capture all the costs that we submit to FEMA.”

Morehead said that he expects to file an initial batch of paperwork in the next 30 days and then periodically thereafter in a phased approach. 

On Aug. 26, Haywood commissioners approved spending around $5 million from the county’s fund balance to execute several contracts for debris removal and rehousing services. 

Southern Disaster Recovery’s Chip Patterson told commissioners they’d be removing upward of 4,000 cubic yards of debris a day per a contract worth up to $4 million, and another company, DebrisTech LLC, was given a $939,000 contract for monitoring services. The final contract, for $175,000, was awarded to nonprofit Baptists on Mission for rapid rehousing. 

“Other than that, we’ve had costs of sheltering the survivors in non-congregate housing. We’ve also paid [lodging for] some of the responders that came in across the state. So we have those costs. We’ve bought supplies, we’ve purchased lots of meals, we’ve rented some heavy equipment,” Morehead said. “So all in all, we’ve spent well over $5 million, probably $5.5 to $5.8 million, something like that. And then we have a lot of overtime. Our finance folks are working with HR to make sure that we can get reimbursed for those costs too.”

Fortunately, Haywood County’s financial picture has only continued to improve over the last decade, making all the emergency spending possible. 

As of June 30, 2020, the last figures that were available, the county had $32.4 million in available fund balance, or about 38.6 percent of its yearly budget. The percentage value is important, as the state’s Local Government Commission requires at least 8 percent — about a months’ worth of spending. A government operating with that level of fund balance would earn a stern letter from the LGC, and would also likely experience cash flow problems, Morehead said. 

Drilling down even further, some of that $32.4 million fund balance is already “spoken for,” by the community college, county schools and law enforcement, so the total unassigned fund balance, completely free and clear, is $19.4 million — before the emergency spending. 

SEE ALSO: Haywood County Schools has $10.5 million in flood damage

Morehead said the rapid and significant temporary decrease in available fund balance wouldn’t affect the county’s standing in the eyes of the LGC, and also probably wouldn’t affect the county’s excellent bond rating, especially if all reimbursement is complete by budget time next June. 

“The board has been very conservative and added money to fund balance over the last few years and, and this is a good example of why you do that, so you can deal with emergencies and you can take care of what needs to be taken care of. If we didn’t have the $5 million free and clear, how could we have started picking up debris?” Morehead remarked. “So that’s a good reason to have cash on hand.”

Now, the county and its municipalities have shifted from waiting for news of the declaration to waiting for the reimbursement checks to start arriving, but that could be a long wait — Morehead said that the county was still awaiting reimbursement from FEMA for costs incurred by the county last year associated with the Coronavirus Pandemic. 

 

FEMA declarations associated with Fred and Ida

Florida 

• Tropical Storm Fred

• Incident period – Aug. 13, 2021 through Aug. 19, 2021

• Declaration date – Aug. 16

Tennessee

• Severe storm and flooding

• Incident period – Aug. 21

• Declaration date – Aug. 23

Louisiana

• Tropical Storm Ida

• Incident period – Aug. 26 and continuing

• Declaration date – Aug. 27

Louisiana

• Hurricane Ida

• Incident period – Aug. 26 and continuing

• Declaration date – Aug. 29

Mississippi 

• Hurricane Ida

• Incident period – Aug. 28 and continuing

• Declaration date – Aug. 28

New Jersey

• Hurricane Ida

• Incident period – Sept. 1 through Sept. 3

• Declaration date – Sept. 2

New York

• Hurricane Ida 

• Incident period – Sept. 1 through Sept. 3

• Declaration date – Sept. 2

New Jersey

• Hurricane Ida

• Incident period – Sept. 1 through Sept. 3

• Declaration date – Sept. 5

New York

• Hurricane Ida

• Incident period – Sept. 1 through Sept. 3

• Declaration date – Sept. 5

North Carolina

• Tropical Storm Fred

• Incident period – Aug. 16 through Aug. 18

• Declaration date – Sept. 8

Pennsylvania

• Hurricane Ida

 

• Incident period – Aug. 31 through Sept. 5 

 

• Declaration date – Sept. 10

Source: FEMA

 

Last 14 FEMA natural disaster declarations in North Carolina

Tropical Storm Eta

• Incident period – Nov. 12-15, 2020

• Declaration date – March 3, 2021

Hurricane Isaias

• Incident period – July 31 - Aug. 4, 2020

• Declaration date – Oct. 14, 2020

Hurricane Isaias

• Incident period – July 31 - Aug. 4, 2020

• Declaration date – Aug. 2, 2020

Storms, tornados and flooding

• Incident period – Feb. 6-20, 2020

• Declaration date – May 8, 2020

Hurricane Dorian

• Incident period – Sept. 1-9, 2019

• Declaration date – Oct. 4, 2019

Tropical Storm Michael

• Incident period – Sept. 10-Oct. 12, 2018

• Declaration date – Jan. 31, 2019

Hurricane Florence

• Incident period – Sept. 7-29, 2018

• Declaration date – Sept. 14, 2018

Hurricane Florence

• Incident period – Sept. 7-29, 2018

• Declaration date – Sept. 10, 2018

Tornado and severe storms

• Incident period – April 15, 2018

• Declaration date – May 8, 2018

Chestnut Knob fire

• Incident period – Nov. 19-Dec. 4, 2016

• Declaration date – Nov. 19

Party Rock fire

• Incident period – Nov. 11-29, 2016

• Declaration date – Nov. 11, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

• Incident period – Oct. 4-24, 2016

• Declaration date – Oct. 10, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

• Incident period – Oct. 4-24, 2016

• Declaration date – Oct. 7, 2016

Severe winter storm

• Incident period – March 6-7, 2014

• Declaration date – March 31, 2014

*Editor’s note: does not include two COVID-19 declarations in 2020. Source: FEMA

 

Disaster declarations during 2004 Pigeon River flooding

Tropical Storm Frances

• Incident period – Sept. 7-12, 2004

• Declaration date – Sept. 10, 2004

Hurricane Ivan

• Incident period – Sept. 16-23, 2004

• Declaration date – Sept. 18, 2004

Source: FEMA

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • so the reason this took so long is that the state dragged it's feet on getting the information to FEMA. I know people who worked the PDA for FEMA and the state did not get numbers to FEMA until the last minute. They toured the destruction and people can vouch that FEMA was on the field days later. Reach out to Haywood high school and they can tell you FEMA admitted not having their contact information until 2 weeks after the event. If you want to blame anyone, blame the state.

    posted by FEMA worker

    Wednesday, 09/15/2021

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.