BOILING SPRING LAKES — How will Boiling Spring Lakes, a town with less than $400,000 in operating expenses last year, afford an estimated $21 million in Hurricane Florence damages?
The answer is patience, planning, and most importantly, an efficient working relationship with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Boiling Spring Lakes will be responsible for paying its invoices up front.
The town’s costliest expense is replacing its 60s-era Sanford Dam, which breached during the hurricane in September 2018. Preliminary estimates are at $13.7 million. Fortunately, FEMA already pre-approved Boiling Spring Lakes’ list of 17 hurricane-related projects, according to city manager, Jeff Repp.
FEMA will cover 75 percent of the cost, and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) will pick up the remaining 25 percent, Repp said. Though the state’s portion of the bill is not required by any statute or policy, Repp said he believes NCDPS will reimburse the city’s storm-related costs at some point.
“They’ve done that historically in the past,” he said. “I’ve not received any indication it won’t (happen).” In the meantime, Repp said the city is dealing with “low-hanging fruit,” or, items under $2,000. “We had a good fund balance prior to the storm,” Repp said.
Boiling Spring Lakes already submitted approximately $1.1 million to FEMA for reimbursement. This includes debris pickup costs, at $1.06 million, and about $45,000 in road repairs on Elm Road, Palmer Road, and Pine Road. That reimbursement has not yet arrived.
Replacing the remaining three dams — Upper, Pine Lake, and North Lake — will cost an estimated $4.29 million combined. According to Repp, the city holding off on major work on getting these dams addressed, due to finances.
To help offset a cash strain once invoices pick up, Repp said the city is anticipating a $2 million North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency loan. At zero percent interest for three years, Repp said he’s hoping the loan is awarded soon. (Update: On March 5, Boiling Spring Lakes announced it received notice this loan was approved. Commissioners will vote to approve the loan at their meeting March 5.)
“We’ll need some assistance to get those first months,” he said. “As we sit here today, that $2 million should help us get those bills paid.”
This storm, the city’s FEMA grant application portal is online. A FEMA representative is at city hall for two hours every Tuesday, Repp said, to help move the process forward.
One month before Florence made landfall, Boiling Spring Lakes’ Board of Commissioners authorized Repp to approve a construction contract for the Sanford Dam. FEMA approved the city a $1.7 million hazard mitigation grant. Boiling Spring Lakes would come up with $577,500 of its own funds, to co-finance the $2.3 million project.
The grant required Boiling Spring Lakes to co-finance the $2.3 million project by coming up with its own funds.
But now, instead of fixing just the spillway, the whole dam needs updating. Repp said he’s hoping to use some of the engineering designs from last year, to help save time and money. Design-build, a process that’s authorized in the state, allows engineers to find its own contractors to carry out their designs. Compared to the traditional model, in which governments put out a request for proposal that three engineering firms bid on, Repp said design-build can save money and take less time.
“We’d rather not have to re-invent the wheel,” he said. “It’s FEMA that’s uncomfortable with design-build.”
He said though the city has had favorable conversations about using its previous designs on Sanford Dam, it does not yet have approval. “It’s a process,” he said. “The better you understand the process and follow the process and get your stuff submitted, the quicker it goes.”
Repp doesn’t know when all $21 million in the city’s liability will be covered.
“It’s a big number for a small city, but like I said, it’s all in the planning,” Repp said. “We’re just plugging along.”
Boiling Spring Lakes Commissioner Steve Barger is more vocal about how to improve post-storm bureaucracy. On Feb. 20, Barger traveled to Raleigh to speak alongside other area officials as part of the informal group, Eastern N.C. Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Alliance.
“The problem with FEMA is that fancy word reimbursement,” Barger said. “You’ve got to pay for it upfront.”
Because reimbursement can sometimes take years, Barger said Boiling Spring Lakes is one of many small coastal communities that can’t rebuild on its own. “To some, we may be a single traffic light on HWY 87, but our city is much more than that to us,” he said.
Through Eastern N.C. Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Alliance, a group spearheaded by Tony McEwen, Wilmington legislative and intergovernmental affairs coordinator, and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, Barger and other coastal officials are advocating for state and federal change. One of the group’s principles is cutting down on red tape.
“Local government and staff are spending an inordinate amount of time working through what at times can be contradictory directions,” McEwen said.
McEwen hopes the alliance’s efforts can help expedite the reimbursement process, among other goals, in future storms.
“(Senator) Rabon and (Representative) Iler have done a lot to help us,” Barger said. “My message to them, I’m going up there to have a conversation and say, ‘Look, we need help.’ A lot of the time the small cities, they might fall by the wayside, because we’re not Wilmington.”
For Boiling Spring Lakes, Barger said most of the city’s infrastructure is in need of updating. In the 60s, the community was developed by Reeves Telecom Limited Partnership, a private corporation. Without significant enhancements since, Barger said the roads are in disrepair.
And waiting for checks to cover the city’s big needs won’t be easy, he said.
“Clearly it’s going to be hard to turn $2 million into $22 million. But it’s a start,” Barger said of the city’s anticipated state loan. “The hoops are large and many,” Barger said.
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