Who Needs FEMA? #OcracokeStrong

Sundae Horn
Pop-up artwork by Charley Shipe
Pop-up artwork by Charley Shipe

FEMA denied Individual Assistance; NC will help with state funds.

Ocracoke residents expressed shock and outrage over the news that FEMA rejected Governor Cooper's request for Individual Assistance for survivors of Hurricane Dorian. 

This decision was neither surprising nor devastating to state and county emergency management. 

FEMA has guidelines to follow and the federal agency steps in when a disaster is so big and/or costly that state emergency resources can't help the victims. 

On a personal, individual level, Ocracokers have suffered great losses: homes, businesses, jobs, cars, and all the stuff we've collected and loved. It seems impossible that our pain does not meet some arbitrary threshold. But the FEMA decision isn't about how much each person lost individually, but how much the area lost as a whole. However much we are suffering, we are still small, barely a blip on the radar of major disasters (for example, wildfires in L.A. burned down over a thousand houses today and the fires are still blazing. Not one of those burned homes is more important than any one of our flooded houses, but the sheer number of people affected and displaced will be much bigger.)(Also, that's still no guarantee that the fire victims will get FEMA I.A.) 

We are small, but mighty. The collective efforts of our tiny island and the people who love us has been humbling to see. As commissioner Tom Pahl reported at Monday's board of commissioners meeting, as of that day, 3928 volunteers had visited Ocracoke and put in 33,334.5 hours. That doesn't even include neighbors helping neighbors, families and friends visiting on their own, or the long days we've all spent cleaning up our own messes and rebuilding our lives. 

Who isn't overwhelmed by the love flowing onto the island in the form of cash, water, mops, buckets, gloves, fans, generators, tools, plastic totes, vinegar, bleach, clothes, shoes, diapers, pet supplies, Little Debbies, bikes, tacos, BBQ, fried chicken, eggs, cheese, green beans, squash, pumpkins, Halloween costumes, school supplies, books, and pudding cups? Just think of all the fundraisers (concerts, gofundme, food sales, bake sales, art sales, silent auctions, t-shirt sales, etc.) that our off-island friends made happen just out of love for our little sandbar. 

Not to mention the Outer Banks Community Foundation Fund, which had collected over $500,000 (just for Ocracoke) by two weeks ago (it's probably double that now. I'll fact check it and amend this paragraph as needed.) That fund will be distributed to Ocracoke fulltime residents by an Interfaith organization through the OVFD. (More on that later.)

We've got this.

Also, FEMA isn't the end-all, be-all, and the state has lots of resources to help us. In fact, that's exactly why the FEMA I.A. declaration was denied – because NC has money. 

Commissioner Tom Pahl posted the following facts today (emphasis ours): 

"Six Individual Assistance Declaration Factors:

  • State Fiscal Capacity and Resource Availability
  • Uninsured Home and Personal Property Losses
  • Disaster Impacted Population Profile
  • Impact to Community Infrastructure
  • Casualties
  • Disaster Related Unemployment

The following factors are used to evaluate the need for supplemental Federal assistance to individuals under the Stafford Act, as Federal assistance may not supplant the combined capabilities of a State, Tribal, or local government. Federal Individual Assistance, if authorized, is intended to assist eligible individuals and families when State, Tribal, and local government resources and assistance programs are overwhelmed. 

Apparently the first factor played a key role in the FEMA decision to deny our request for individual assistance. NC has a robust Emergency Management capability which A) weakened our case and B) will provide much of what FEMA would have provided."

Let's do a little more fact-checking. While it is true that the President has diverted some FEMA monies to his border wall fund, and it's true that FEMA denied Gov. Cooper's request for Individual Assistance, those two facts are a Venn diagram like this:

No overlap
No overlap

The only thing those two items have in common is: Things People Get Upset About

As readers of the Current have probably ascertained, we lean liberal at this paper and indeed on the island, too. Please understand that I'm not defending the President for political reasons, but because he just isn't a part of this decision. It was not Trump who denied the I.A. declaration, it was FEMA, based on the law, i.e., the Stafford Act. (You can download and read the actual legislation, but the Wikipedia entry is easier to understand.) So no matter what you've heard or who you've seen on news clips from the island (insert eyeroll emoji here), we really can't blame Trump or his border wall for this one. 

We made our case by calling our elected representatives and showing ourselves to be in need. Ocracoke needs outside help, and our state leaders responded by visiting and assuring us they understood our need. They applied to FEMA and got rejected.

What comes next?

Governor Cooper could appeal the FEMA decision and he has 30 days to do that. But his office sent a press release today that he wouldn't appeal, but would instead ask for an SBA disaster declaration.

The press release reads (emphasis ours): “I’m asking the SBA for assistance so we can get more state help to Hurricane Dorian survivors as quickly as possible. While it’s disappointing that federal government assistance for this was turned down, we know that North Carolinians should not leave each other behind,” said Governor Cooper.

If granted, the declaration would provide low-interest disaster loans to people affected by Hurricane Dorian, and it would be the first piece of a state managed relief program for Dorian’s victims. The request is for assistance to affected individuals and businesses in Carteret, Dare, Hyde, New Hanover and all contiguous counties. 

Following the SBA declaration, Governor Cooper intends to sign an order for state-funded individual assistance which would provide grants to supplement SBA loans for Dorian affected individuals and businesses. The state will then open disaster recovery centers in affected counties for people to apply for SBA loans and state grants.

And just in case you think this move on Cooper's behalf is political, our senators, Tillis and Burr, issued a joint press release in support of the governor's decision not to appeal to FEMA. “We urge the governor not to draw this process out by filing an appeal,” they wrote. “Instead, he should activate available state programs that can get necessary funding to impacted areas without delay.”

Help is coming. Help is here. We already have a disaster recovery center – and we need to use it. EVERYONE on the island needs to go to the Joint Resources truck in the Variety Store parking lot and let the nice people there know what you need. That information will help get the process going for state loans and grants, including state individual assistance. 

Pop-up artwork by Ocracoke kids with help from Sara Teaster
Pop-up artwork by Ocracoke kids with help from Sara Teaster

From what I've heard from our NC neighbors who went through recovery from Hurricane Matthew and Florence, FEMA ain't all it's cracked up to be. We might be better off without the federal version of Individual Assistance. Don't we all know the joke, "I'm from the government; I'm here to help."?

Another thing to remember is that FEMA is on the island. It's a big agency and has many departments. FEMA peeps have been here from the beginning helping to assess damage and get disaster recovery started. Ocracoke and Hyde County got a major disaster declaration for Public Assistance (approved by the regional FEMA office and signed by the President), meaning that federal funds are paying for debris removal, road repair, and other infrastructure funding. 


Keep calm and enjoy your last day of being fed by the Baptists. We will miss them!



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