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Here’s how a bill could help students in Ocracoke and community colleges recover from storms

Updated at 9:15 p.m.

House Bill 1023 passed the House by a vote of 109-0 on Wednesday evening. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.

A bill that would help community colleges and Ocracoke School recover from the damage inflicted this year by Hurricane Dorian cleared the House Appropriations Committee today. 

House Bill 1023, entitled the Storm Recovery Act of 2019, would allocate more than $250 million to help residents, local governments, schools and state agencies recover from four recent storms, as well as prepare for the next one. It would allow local governments flexibility in spending money from previous storm allocations, fund repairs at Ocracoke School, and offer the community college system more flexibility around funding for storm-related enrollment declines.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the bill has not gone through preconference, where House and Senate committee members discuss and revise bills together. With a legislative break scheduled for Thursday, McGrady said he wanted to introduce it in time for the House to vote Thursday to keep pushing toward getting money into the communities.

“The understanding here is that we need to get a bill out during the week so that over the expected break the Senate can work on it,” McGrady said.

Among its allocations, the bill would provide $1.7 million for repairs at Ocracoke School, where reconstruction work has begun after Hurricane Dorian devastated the campus. Students there were out of school for a month before classes resumed October 9 using various sites across Ocracoke Island.

“Everyone is working everyday to reconstruct their wonderful school and island,” Hyde County Superintendent Stephen Basnight said in an e-mail responding to the bill. “We have come a long way and still have a long way to go, but with this kind of support we’ll get there.”

During time allotted for committee members to ask questions, Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston talked about Dorian’s harsh impact — “The island of Ocracoke, by all accounts, was 99.999% awash – or under water,” — and asked for more clarity around the events leading up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s denial of Gov. Roy Cooper’s request for a disaster declaration for individual assistance in four hard-hit counties.

McGrady said HB 1023 is intended to soften that blow by providing state funds for individual assistance, adding that the Cooper administration requested a bulk of the money in the bill.

The bill, for instance, would provide matching funds for approved FEMA programs. It also would fund the equivalent state programs for assistance that can’t get federal dollars because the disaster declaration was denied.

The bill also would give community colleges in several eastern North Carolina communities further relief from lost enrollment due to recent storms.

In September, Cooper signed Senate Bill 429 into law (Session Law 2019-224), providing funds to the Community College System Office for allocation to community colleges for receipt shortfalls due to enrollment declines caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018. HB 1023 would allow those funds allocated for the 2018-19 fiscal year to be used for the current fiscal year, as well.

In addition to Ocracoke School and community colleges, the bill would provide funding across several local governments and agencies — and it includes provisions designed to offer local governments both flexibility in use of funds and an opportunity to invest in resiliency planning.

For instance, several bills have passed over the last three years allocating money for programs and purposes tied to specific storms. HB 1023 would allow local governments to re-allocate money intended for a specific purpose for one storm to that same specific purpose for a different storm.

“We’re providing flexibility,” McGrady said. “If they’ve got money for something for one storm, we don’t want to hold them up because they need to use that money for another storm.”

With regard to resiliency, McGrady said the bill represents a pivot from previous disaster recovery bills that focused on specific repair and mitigation efforts. HB 1023 would provide assistance for resiliency planning to prevent or temper losses in future storms. As part of a $40 million allocation to the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, $10 million is earmarked to assist with resiliency planning.

“This bill is a step in the right direction,” said bill sponsor Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, “to where we can not only be a leader before the storm, during the storm and after the storm, but a leader in resiliency and recovery.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.