Bell: Get Flood Resiliency Plan Right and in Timely Manner

Early intervention was top of mind for the members of the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery on January 23. Legislators sought to ensure the N.C. Flood Resiliency Blueprint provides tangible results to reduce flooding and its impacts in North Carolina.

Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Secretary Elizabeth Biser and Project Manager Todd Kennedy were joined by Dave Canaan and John Dorman of AECOM, the contractor selected to develop the Blueprint, to testify before the subcommittee on efforts to date and the path ahead.

Of the $20 million appropriated by the General Assembly in 2021, DEQ has spent $1.9 million to produce what subcommittee Co-Chair Rep. John Bell (R-Wayne) described with disappointment as “a very, very rough draft” of a report and to develop flood mitigation strategies for the Neuse River basin. Biser provided the draft executive summary with her written testimony. The full report still faces months of revisions from staff based on input from more than 150 stakeholders and 500 comments submitted to the project team.

Another $4 million is dedicated to developing an online tool to help state and local governments prioritize flood mitigation strategies. Biser and the AECOM team said a beta version would be ready in April. The remaining $14 million would go toward applying lessons from the Neuse effort to other five other basins, including the French Broad River in western North Carolina.

“We wanted to invest time on the front end in order to make sure things went as smoothly as possible on the back end,” Biser said. This meant learning from other states, bringing in more than 150 stakeholders, and taking an agile, learning-based approach to projects and contracts instead of the traditional “waterfall” approach. For example, lessons from creating strategies and projects for the Neuse River basin will be applied to the other basins.

“We have a tendency to move at the speed of government, not the speed of business.
We need to move at the speed of business.”

Rep. John Bell

Legislators also probed Biser on the future of the Blueprint and whether it would become a permanent part of North Carolina’s government?

“I don’t want you to picture some big bureaucracy, big division-type effort,” Biser said, repeatedly iterating that she sees this as a project, not a program. Looking to future needs, Biser likened it to buying a new car and not changing its oil. “The value of the tool is directly correlated with what data is supporting it.… The data has to be maintained. If we do it one time and walk away, it’s going to be great for a few years, and then you’re going to have wasted your investment.”

Members of the subcommittee were particularly concerned about the hurdles from federal regulations and state procurement rules. Those two areas will likely be subject of further discussions, along with firmer estimates of costs for development, implementation, and maintenance.  

The subcommittee will continue to monitor as each phase of the Blueprint timeline progresses and work to protect the citizens of North Carolina from catastrophic flood events and their aftermath.

“With the Blueprint, we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us,” Bell said. “Not just an opportunity to help protect lives and property and to be able to gauge how we navigate the flooding but an opportunity to show the rest of the country that we can get it right and be a model for them to use for their states. Everybody wants to get this right and have it done in a timely manner.”

Other coverage:

WRAL NC hurricane, flooding response: GOP lawmakers question top Cooper official

WUNC NC to launch $20 million data collection project to tackle future floods

CBS17 NC lawmakers question state officials about storm response