Chal­lenges for Caroli­nas to ex­tend long af­ter storm

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - Alan Blin­der and Richard Faus­set

It will not be CON­WAY, S.C. — easy dry­ing out, fix­ing up and re­think­ing whole ways of life in a re­gion drenched and deeply shaken by more than 8 tril­lion gal­lons of rain.

But that is the chal­lenge fac­ing the Caroli­nas af­ter Hur­ri­cane Florence and a weary­ing week of heroic res­cues, hard choices, po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal crises — in­clud­ing a dam breach Fri­day that al­lowed coal ash to seep into a river — and a vast re­sponse that is still un­fold­ing.

The storm and its sub­se­quent flood­ing have killed at least 42 peo­ple. The threats have not abated, par­tic­u­larly here in South Carolina’s low-ly­ing coastal plain, where the Wac­ca­maw River set a record Fri­day and will keep ris­ing into the new week, threat­en­ing neigh­bor­hoods, in­fra­struc­ture and lives anew.

Al­ready, the emer­gency and re­cov­ery re­sponse is stag­ger­ing in its scope, with more than 6,000 Na­tional Guard sol­diers and thou­sands more fed­eral dis­as­ter-re­sponse work­ers spread across the re­gion. They have 6 mil­lion emer­gency meals to hand out, 4 mil­lion liters of wa­ter, 700,000 blan­kets and 6,000 cots. Along with state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments, fed­eral of­fi­cials will also have to man­age a daunt­ing bu­reau­cratic chal­lenge as they at­tempt to re­build and re­vive a vast area that cov­ers hard-hit mega-farms, tourist zones and pock­ets of deep ru­ral poverty.

It is too early to judge fully the ef­fec­tive­ness of a re­sponse that is only be­gin­ning. Checks must still be dis­trib­uted to vic­tims, emer­gency loans granted to busi­nesses, and homes re­built — or bought out. There are mount­ing con­cerns about en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences, like spills of coal ash and hog waste, that will test reg­u­la­tors. But so far, un­like the af­ter­maths of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, or Hur­ri­cane Maria, which pum­meled Puerto Rico last year, there have been no charges of large-scale gov­ern­ment in­com­pe­tence.

The dis­placed, thou­sands of them, landed, safe if not par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able, in scores of shel­ters, and the evac­u­a­tion of the coast­line was a gen­er­ally or­derly af­fair. In South Carolina, in what is now a well-prac­ticed rou­tine, of­fi­cials re­versed the flow of traf­fic on some ma­jor roads, creat­ing more ways to get away from the At­lantic.

State gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­lieve tech­nol­ogy helped: Traf­fic to a North Carolina web­site that al­lows res­i­dents to sign up for text-mes­sage alerts when the wa­ter is ris­ing in their neigh­bor­hoods in­creased more than eight­fold from the traf­fic dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Matthew, in 2016. A South Carolina mo­bile app let users know whether they were in an evac­u­a­tion zone, and where to find shel­ter.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments took the threat se­ri­ously, re­ly­ing on their ex­pe­ri­ence from Matthew and other re­cent storms to iden­tify neigh­bor­hoods most likely to flood. In Kin­ston, North Carolina, of­fi­cials or­dered dozens of redand-white signs and posted them on the most vul­ner­a­ble streets: “THIS AREA PRONE TO FLOOD­ING BE CAU­TIOUS,” they de­clared.

The long-term re­cov­ery work has just be­gun, and it is cer­tain to test the com­pe­tence, and bur­nish or break the rep­u­ta­tions, of a ros­ter of high-pro­file play­ers.

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency is seek­ing to show its met­tle af­ter the de­ba­cle of the post-Maria re­sponse in Puerto Rico. Although Pres­i­dent Trump celebrated the ef­fort as a suc­cess, the agency it­self ac­knowl­edged it had in­ad­e­quate sup­plies and un­der­es­ti­mated what it would need.

In the spot­light is Brock Long, Trump’s FEMA chief, who re­ceived ac­co­lades for the agency’s re­sponse dur­ing Hur­ri­canes Har­vey and Irma but has been un­der scru­tiny for his per­sonal use of gov­ern­ment ve­hi­cles.

Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Demo­crat, must also prove him­self af­ter crit­i­cism that his ad­min­is­tra­tion spent only a frac­tion of dis­as­ter fund­ing that Con­gress al­lo­cated to the state for re­build­ing af­ter Hur­ri­cane Matthew.

(Cooper’s of­fice notes that the state has spent a to­tal of $751 mil­lion of state, lo­cal and fed­eral money on Matthew re­cov­ery, and the gov­er­nor and leg­isla­tive lead­ers are plan­ning for a spe­cial ses­sion fo­cused on Florence relief.)

Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, a Repub­li­can, also has some­thing to prove — that he can step out from the shadow of for­mer Gov. Nikki Ha­ley.

McMaster, the for­mer lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, as­cended to his state’s top job last year when Ha­ley joined the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

TAMIR KALIFA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Na­tional Guard sol­diers stack sand­bags along High­way 501 in Con­way, S.C. Emer­gency and re­cov­ery re­sponse to Hur­ri­cane Florence is stag­ger­ing in scope and the threat has not abated.

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