FAIR BLUFF, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper refused to commit to a timeline when residents across southeastern North Carolina, still reeling from damage left by Hurricane Matthew nearly two years ago, would begin to see help in the form of hundreds-of-millions of dollars in federal aid.
Cooper spent the day touring two communities hit hard by Hurricane Matthew—Lumberton, NC in Robeson County and Fair Bluff, NC in Columbus County.
His tour came the same day that the North Carolina House Committee on Disaster Recovery convened in Raleigh to discuss and demand answers for the slow pace of Hurricane Matthew recovery.
In requesting the committee be re-constituted last month, Representative Brendan Jones (R-Columbus), who represents Fair Bluff, cited a string of reports that aired as part of an ongoing WBTV investigation.
Jones requested Cooper address Monday's committee hearing. Instead, the committee met and Cooper hit the road.
House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), whose district was also hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, criticized the Governor for refusing to attend Monday's hearing.
"We're trying to do business up here for the people of North Carolina. If he wants to play politics and campaign, let him go do that," Bell said during an interview in his office at the General Assembly on Monday. "Our goal here is to make sure the money's accountable and get it to the victims of the storm."
In Fair Bluff, Cooper first stopped at the new fire department under construction (the old fire station was destroyed in the storm). The new building is being built with money appropriated by the General Assembly and the project is being overseen by the Golden Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit that is administering millions of dollars in state disaster recovery dollars.
Cooper then stopped at a recently-opened disaster application center on Main Street in Fair Bluff.
He spoke with a few residents who were at the center apply for relief before taking questions from reporters.
During the questioning, Cooper repeated his recent refrain about help needing to come faster, and said he was confident his administration had a team in place that could soon begin to deliver help to the thousands of hurricane victims whose homes were damaged in the storm.
"It has to move faster! There's no question about it, it has to move faster," Cooper said, noting that staff at the North Carolina Emergency Management office are currently working to complete environmental assessments required before the state can begin disbursing the federal HUD block grant money.
"I know that people are waiting and want help," he said. "And I think people are ready to step up and provide that help to them."
Cooper said federal community development block grant money from HUD would be available to disburse to counties impacted by the storm, including Columbus, soon. So far, Robeson County is the only one to have received any federal money; one home is currently being repaired with CDBG-DR funds.
But Cooper could not answer a reporter's question about a specific timeline—whether in weeks or months—as to when hurricane victims in other communities could expect the same federal dollars to begin flowing.
"I know that as soon as the environmental review is done that there is a lot of work that is already done to get people relief as soon as possible," Cooper said in response to a follow-up question from a reporter.
"But what's the timeline?" the reporter asked. "I mean, the folks have heard it's coming as soon as possible – a year ago you said it's coming as soon as possible. So when can people expect to start seeing CDBG-DR money flowing to Columbus County?"
"They deserve relief as soon as possible," Cooper said again.
"But what does that mean?" the reporter asked.
"They're working very hard to comply with all the federal regulations to do what they need to do so that the money can be distributed," Cooper said.
The exchange between Cooper and the reported lasted a minute-and-a-half, with the reporter trying to nail the Governor down about a timeline and Cooper refusing to provide one.
"So, you don't have a timeline? Can we acknowledge that you don't?" the reporter asked.
"I think they're working as hard as they can and they've got the federal government that they're dealing with and the environmental review that they're dealing with; so, I know that the people who are involved in this want to get people help," Cooper said.