Bipartisanship has become rare in North Carolina, but lawmakers put their differences aside recently to take their first step toward helping those impacted by Hurricane Florence.
“It was really nice to experience collegiality in the legislative chambers and the sort of lack of partisanship,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “That was kind of refreshing.”
She and several other Democrats recognized that the two disaster recovery bills that passed unanimously were small first steps in taking care of what the state actually needed. Gov. Roy Cooper signed the bills into law this afternoon.
The measures included $50 million from the rainy day fund to match federal disaster assistance programs and $6.5 million to pay school employees for missed work during Hurricane Florence. They also included flexibility for impacted school districts to waive up to 20 days of missed school and some election relief for impacted voters.
Hurricane Florence dropped more than 35 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina, making it the wettest tropical cyclone on record. Communities in eastern North Carolina – particularly low income, rural and communities of color – experienced devastating impacts, including flooding and damage to homes and businesses.
Many of those low-lying areas were still recovering from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which also resulted in catastrophic flooding.
“I think Matthew was a wake-up call, and if Matthew wasn’t a wake-up call, then I think Florence was a wake-up call that we need to work smarter,” Harrison said of the recovery legislation process.
She would have liked to have seen lawmakers address flood mitigation and water-flow issues – particularly moving hog lagoons and coal ash ponds away from waterways.
At least 5,500 hogs died during Hurricane Florence and more than 100 swine waste lagoons sustained damage, flooded, breached or nearly breached since the storm hit Sept. 14. Duke Energy has also reported at least two coal ash basin breaches.
Harrison is concerned about the water contamination and she’s frustrated by some of the rollbacks on storm water requirements over the past couple years.
“It’s sort of frightening the level of contamination in North Carolina’s drinking water,” she said.
Still, she remains hopeful that lawmakers will address the state’s environmental concerns when they reconvene to take up more recovery issues this month.
Democratic Leader Darren Jackson (D-Wake) expressed a similar sentiment. He thought Tuesday’s special session was a small first step in what will likely be a long recovery.
He said in an email that Cooper was doing a good job leading their efforts and communicating with Republican legislative leaders, and that he hopes bipartisan cooperation continues.
“The next week or two are critical as the disaster recovery professionals get a better sense of the scope of the damage, what our specific needs are, and what long-term actions we need to take,” Jackson wrote. “Until we get that information, there is not more legislatively we could have done on the big issues of housing, education, environmental cleanup and rebuilding infrastructure.”
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) said the only real contentious issue was making sure people can get to the polls and vote.
“We didn’t go far enough to ensure voters in affected counties will have easy access to absentee ballots or out of county voting if they had to relocate,” she said. “Mobile one-stop voting also should have been considered.”
Lawmakers extended the voter registration deadline by one business day in the 28 counties in which the president declared a state of emergency. They also included provisions that county boards of elections could unanimously vote to replace an early voting or Election Day site if they could not be used due to damage from the hurricane.
“Some polling sites may be OK, but roads to get there may have been destroyed,” Morey said. “I would have preferred automatic relocation of damaged polling places or a majority of the local board voting to change sites. The unanimous decision will likely cause delays and appeals to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.”
The State Board is still waiting to hear from some counties about polling place damage from the hurricane, but Craven, Pender and Jones counties have already reported flooding damage to Election Day sites that rendered them unusable.
Melanie Wray, director of the Craven County Board of Elections, said that two of the county’s Election Day sites were flooded and parts of the roof of a third location was torn off.
The county board was set to meet to vote on resolutions transferring voters in those areas to nearby adjacent precincts. Wray said voters would be notified in the mail, the newspaper and online.
In Pender County, Board of Elections Director Lily Stainback said her county has one Election Day site that is still blocked and more than likely will not be usable, but the storm has created a number of issues for staff.
“We lost a lot of time and that’s been our biggest issue,” she said, adding that they lost about two weeks during a critical time in elections preparation.
Jennifer King, director of the Jones County State Board of Elections, said her county is transferring voters from the one Election Day precinct location that flooded to the board’s office, which is less than a mile away.
“That site was flooded and the previous voting location before that was also flooded,” she said.
King added that she was grateful her office wasn’t flooded because that would have created more issues. The board is sending voters letters and plans to publish notifications in newspapers, online and in social media.
Jen Jones, spokesperson for Democracy NC, a voting rights organization, said they welcomed lawmakers’ extension of the voter registration deadline but would like to see them build on some of what’s already been put forward so that affected voters are fully served this fall.
“In particular, our hope would be that county boards would be afforded greater flexibility to increase access by adding or substituting important and popular early voting sites in impacted counties,” she said.
In the meantime, voters impacted by the hurricane can stay up to date with election changes on the State Board website. All voters can find early voting site information here. Anyone can vote by mail up until 5 p.m. the Tuesday before Election Day.
Early voting starts today, Oct. 17, and runs through Nov. 3. Election Day is Nov. 6.
Morey said the state has a long way to go in recovery but she’s heartened by the bipartisan votes.
“The heavy lift will come … when infrastructure, transportation and, I hope, Medicaid expansion will be addressed,” she added. “(Hopefully) we will have the same spirit of cooperation to help devastated communities and families.”
Melissa Broughton writes for N.C. Policy Watch, an online news service.