By Allen Turner, The News Reporter
For the second time in less than a week, Gov. Roy Cooper was in Columbus County Thursday, this time for a whirlwind tour related to Hurricane Florence damages. Four days after speaking at the funeral for slain N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Kevin Conner at South Columbus High School, the governor visited the newly opened FEMA Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in the former Board of Elections office on Legion Drive in Whiteville. He also sat down for a roundtable discussion with officials in Lake Waccamaw and toured Dale’s Seafood, which just reopened at the lake after sustaining damages in the hurricane.
At the DRC, the governor met with staffers from FEMA and N.C. Emergency Management and talked with hurricane victims applying for assistance. Among them was Jeanette King of Ash, who showed the governor more than a dozen pictures of damages sustained at her home. Also on hand to meet the governor at the DRC were Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann, City Manager Darren Currie, Columbus County Commissioner Trent Burroughs, County Manager Mike Stephens, Sheriff Lewis Hatcher and Jennifer Holcomb, president of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. Cooper was accompanied by Pryor Gibson, a former state legislator who is heading up the governor’s new Hometown Strong program.
From Whiteville, the group motorcaded to Lake Waccamaw for a roundtable discussion at Town Hall, a walking tour of Boys and Girls Homes and a visit to Dale’s Seafood. Taking part in the discussion with Cooper in town council chambers were Mayor Daniel Hilburn, Town Manager Gordon Hargrove, Street and Maintenance Supervisor Robert Bailey, Police Chief Scott Hyatt, Fire Chief Jerry Gore, Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor and former town manager Mike Prostinak, Boys and Girls Homes President Gary Faircloth and Holcomb of the Chamber.
Cooper praised Lake Waccamaw’s early efforts at recovery after Hurricane Florence. “I appreciate how proactive you have been,” the governor told Hilburn. “We’ve got to be smarter and stronger in our recovery efforts after this storm.
We’ve got to make homes more resilient, and we’ve got to help small businesses that have been hit hard. Small business is the backbone of our economy and we need to do more to help them get back on their feet.”
The governor smiled as Holcomb presented Dale’s Seafood with a check for $500, one of 39 such grants the Chamber has awarded to small businesses in the county to help with Florence recovery efforts. “Rural counties and small towns in southeastern North Carolina have been hit hard by the storm,” Cooper said, “and often they don’t have the resources to recover without help from the state and federal governments.”
State rainy day savings will play a big role as North Carolina recovers from the hurricane, but Cooper said the state wants to get road repair funds from the federal government and state transportation funds before dipping into rainy day savings for highway repairs and related infrastructure.
“We’ve already set aside about $400 million in rainy day funds, but we are going to need significantly more,” said the governor. “The preliminary assessment is that Hurricane Florence did almost $13 billion in damage in North Carolina.
That compares to $4.2 billion in Hurricane Matthew. Hurricane Florence did more damage in North Carolina than Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 put together.”
“It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us to recover,” said Cooper, “but I have confidence in the resiliency and determination of North Carolinians to get this done. We’re going to get this done. We have to get it done.”
The governor expressed satisfaction at how the entire state government — his administration and the General Assembly — came together in one accord to quickly put together a $400 million relief package during a short special session of the legislature earlier this month.
Cooper and the General Assembly, particularly Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, have been at odds over the state’s recovery efforts after Hurricane Matthew, but Cooper offered nothing but praise for how the General Assembly had worked with his administration after Hurricane Florence. He also said he expects more relief to come when the General Assembly reconvenes after Thanksgiving.
“We will pull together to do what we have to do to recover. We have to work together. We’re going to have differences on how this gets done, but we’ve done some good work up front. There’s a lot more still to do, but we will get it done.”
Before leaving for another event in Wilmington, Cooper greeted diners at Dale’s Seafood and munched on seafood appetizers.