After more than a year, a statewide flood-planning tool remains in development, but North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality officials said this week that their “goal is to begin helping some of the most impacted communities as soon as possible,” and they plan to use the nearly $100 million released to the agency in the last month to get there.
NCDEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser outlined Tuesday for the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations, Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery, the progress made on the North Carolina Flood Resiliency Blueprint, which the agency was tasked with creating in 2021. She and department Blueprint Manager Todd Kennedy also detailed how the department is spending state dollars.
Held in the legislative building auditorium with a handful of people in attendance and about 130 online, DEQ officials were joined for the hearing by AECOM Senior Program Manager Dave Canaan and John Dorman, who oversees strategic funding and disaster management. AECOM is the consulting firm contracted for the blueprint project.
The resiliency blueprint is a historic endeavor, Biser said, adding that the approach is the first of its kind in the country.
“I want to be clear that the end goal of this project is making North Carolina and our residents more resilient to storm events. The blueprint is the tool that will get us there,” she said.
With the state experiencing more frequent and more intense storm events, and hurricanes and tropical storms such as Fred, Florence, Michael, and Matthew causing billions of dollars of damage and loss of life, “we know it’s a matter of when, not if, we see another storm of that magnitude. At the same time we’re continuing to see flooding in communities without a major hurricane,” Biser explained.
And North Carolina’s economy is booming. “With that growth comes more people, more buildings, more roads and more infrastructure that we need to protect, more impervious surface that we need to account for because it does increase our flood risks, and it puts more of our residents at risk,” she said. adding, “Making our state and our residents more resilient to future storm events is what the blueprint will accomplish.”
House Majority Leader Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, reminded the committee before Biser spoke that NCDEQ had been appropriated $20 million to develop the blueprint, to study river basins prone to flooding, and create a decision-making tool for flood mitigation, investments and strategies from local watersheds to the entire river basin. The “committee wants to know where we are in that process,” Bell said.
Of the $20 million from the 2021 allocation, close to $6 million has been obligated, Biser said.
Roughly $1.9 million was spent on contracting for the simultaneous development of the draft blueprint and draft Neuse River Basin Action Strategy, which is referred to as the blueprint’s Phase 1.
Both plans should be available to the public in the next few months, officials said.
For Phase 2, another $4.08 million is going to develop the online decision-support tool, which will allow decision-makers and the public to access and benefit from the data modeling and analysis that’s being done, expected later this year.
“The remainder — around $14 million — and I will note that we have been trying to be very good stewards of this $20 million because we know that it’s going to take a lot to get to this next stage — will support the development of river basin action strategies for the next five prioritized basins: the Cape Fear, the Tar-Pamlico, the White Oak, the Lumber and the French Broad,” or Phase III.
They chose the Neuse River basin for the model strategy because it likely has the most data related to flooding compared to other basins in the state, a past report states.
As part of the allocation, the North Carolina General Assembly directed DEQ’s Division of Mitigation Services to contract with an organization to develop the blueprint, which is how AECOM, a global consulting firm that provides technical and consulting services with an office in Raleigh, was selected. The firm was given a statutory deadline of Dec. 31 for delivering the draft document.
Once the agency had the draft, $96 million was released to implement flood resiliency projects.
NCDEQ Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Sharon Martin told Coastal Review Wednesday that the agency is working to begin implementing the projects using the $96 million and what is learned from those projects will be incorporated into the blueprint and action strategies.
Biser, during the hearing Tuesday, explained that officials were in the process of looking at how to develop a phased approach to spending the $96 million.
“In the Neuse Basin, we’ve already identified a list of potential projects and are actively prioritizing them for quick implementation,” adding the agency will expand that to the other five basins over the next year,” Biser said. There’s about a thousand different mitigation strategies in the Neuse River action strategy and now the key is “prioritizing those projects because we don’t have an infinite amount of funding available. So, we’re having a look at what’s going to be most impactful to spend money on.”
Kennedy, DEQ blueprint manager, said the process to prioritize those projects had begun and that they’re in “high gear” to begin the implementation process.
“I anticipate the first wave of projects coming here over the next six months or so. Things that we can again, implement more quickly, and then expect a second wave coming after that, both within the Neuse and those other five basins where we’ll look to get projects on the ground.
Biser said that the data from the initial projects would be incorporated into the blueprint as strategies continue to be developed, and there are plans to provide a list of available funding.
Biser responded during the questioning that there are different levels of capacity in various local governments. “You’ve got some local governments who are going to have engineering staff on hand or at the call, and they’re able to really have their own staff to work through it. Other small, smaller, rural municipalities may have a harder time with capacity.” She in turn asked legislators, “how much technical assistance and engaging with a tool do you want to see?”
Biser was asked about the draft blueprint document, which she reiterated was still in draft form. “I will put emphasis on the word ‘draft’ at the moment,” she said.
Currently, the 150 technical experts from state agencies, academia, nonprofits and other organizations that have been working with NCDEQ to build the blueprint over the last year “are in the process of reviewing the work AECOM gave to us,” Biser said, adding that the Dec. 31 deadline was met.
Kennedy noted during the meeting that there is an executive summary on the website and the larger draft document would be refined over the next few months and then made public.
Sen. Steve Jarvis, R-Davidson, clarified that they expect it to take months to refine the draft, adding “I understand the executive summaries there. But as soon as possible. I think we need to see the draft. We would like to make that public.”
Biser said they want to make sure that they’re not creating any confusion.
“I think that’s the biggest part of this is making sure that we’ve got everything refined to the point where it’s going to be most useful. But we hear you in terms of the timeframe and we’re we are working as quickly as possible to get that public and to get it ready and in your hands.”
Bell, when it was his opportunity to ask questions, began by saying, “first, will be a probably a little snarky comment, but it needs to be said $2 million on a very, very rough draft. Probably not the best use of taxpayer money. You know, we should have a better draft than very, very rough draft.”