WILMINGTON, N.C.—Just as some local officials said they were starting to get antsy about the arrival of federal aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, it began arriving.
“This was the first FEMA shirt I’ve seen. We’ve been taking care of ourselves,” said Skip Watkins, vice chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. He had waited in line and shook hands with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long on Tuesday, a week after schools closed and businesses closed for Florence.
The storm, which has claimed 36 lives, drenched the Carolinas for days, demolishing homes, closing businesses and damaging crops and farms.
So far, the main faces of relief have been local and state agencies, and public officials have emphasized that citizens need to first turn to local resources.
FEMA is hewing to a more traditional, less-activist role, say people on the ground, disaster experts and the agency itself.
The agency wasn’t designed to take the lead in these situations, and it is working with local and state officials to provide expertise and resources as needed, said Jenny Burke, FEMA spokeswoman. Some of the department’s main functions, like funding rebuilding efforts and medium- and long-term shelter, can’t begin until floodwaters recede, she said.
“The general misconception is that FEMA comes in and is able to fix everything for everybody,” said Ms. Burke. “The reality is it’s a whole community response.”
Coast Guard crews from around the U.S. raced to evacuate those stranded by Hurricane Florence flooding. WSJ joined one team as they propelled a woman and her three dogs to safety. Photo: Alexander Hotz/WSJ
As of Wednesday, there were 171 FEMA employees on the ground in hard-hit New Hanover County and another 100 are expected soon, Mr. Watkins said. They hadn’t started one-on-one interviews with people seeking aid but were expected to begin soon at a high school-turned-shelter, he said. In total, FEMA says it has nearly 1,200 personnel on the ground in the Carolinas, and 2,900 supporting the storm overall.
Mr. Watkins said he is eager for FEMA’s involvement so the county can move the evacuees and reopen the school next week.
“We’re going to need a lot of help,” Mr. Watkins said. “We believe that FEMA’s going to do their job, but we are going to make sure they do their job.”
State Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican who represents New Hanover County, said he and other elected officials are asking FEMA to open a disaster recovery center on the ground. Many of the 650 people at the high school shelter are older people, he said. Sen. Lee said he hasn’t gotten assurances about a center, but he and others are pressing the administration.
“I was a little discouraged a few days ago,” Sen. Lee said. “I’m encouraged so see them here now.”
President Trump toured North Carolina Wednesday with North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FEMA officials. “The money will come as fast as you need it,” Mr. Trump said.
After meeting with President Trump on Wednesday, Gov. Cooper said he drove home the state’s need for “significant resources” in the wake of Florence. Mr. Cooper said he talked to the president about the state’s need for FEMA help for immediate issues such as temporary housing, long-term housing needs and highway and bridge issues.
“We’re going to need significant resources to recover and I emphasized that to him over and over again,” Mr. Cooper said at a news conference. “He promised 100% support and we’re going to hold them to it.”
FEMA’s mission—“helping people before, during and after disasters”—reflects its broad mandate and the many tools given to the agency since its establishment in 1979. The agency took on roles including providing flood insurance, fire and weather preparedness training, along with addressing post-disaster housing issues.
FEMA’s willingness to stretch its mandate—or be more conservative—in its role has shifted depending on the presidential administration, budgets and in reaction to how it responded to the last disaster it faced.
As Florence bore down on the East Coast last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) released budget documents showing that the Department of Homeland Security reduced FEMA and Coast Guard budgets while beefing up Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
There is also a continuing internal investigation of FEMA’s top official, Brock Long, over his frequent travel and use of government vehicles.
A government report released earlier this month said the back-to-back devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, followed by catastrophic wildfires in California, overwhelmed FEMA in 2017.
President Donald Trump met with leaders in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Florence and got a tour of the damage. Photo: AP
The agency was 30% understaffed by the time Harvey hit, said Chris Currie, director of emergency management issues at the Government Accountability Office, which wrote the report. The sequence of storms and fires forced the agency to use uncertified workers to fill key roles in some cases.
But in the Carolinas, FEMA officials have said those issues aren’t affecting operations.
“The systems are working like they’re supposed to work,” said Bryan Koon, a former head of emergency operations for Florida who now works at security consulting firm IEM Inc. FEMA’s mission to provide expertise in rebuilding and aiding in recovery is just getting started, he said.
In the aftermath of an emergency it can take a long time to know if everything has gone well, but if something goes very wrong you can tell immediately, and he said he hasn’t seen any glaring faults.
Albie Lewis, a coordinating officer with FEMA, said North Carolinians will see disaster-survivor assistance teams going door to door. He said 40,000 people in the state have registered with FEMA, and that funding has already been approved for many survivors.
Sabrina Bengel, mayor pro tem of New Bern, N.C., said the state and federal government have already been “extremely responsive,” starting with the disaster declaration. “To me, the biggest thing the state can do and the federal government can do is help us cut the red tape, get the bureaucracy out of the way and serve the people who are really in need,” she said.
—Erin Ailworth and Jon Kamp contributed to this article.