RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina must withstand more torrential rains, gusty winds, and river flooding from Tropical Storm Florence next week, but emergency leaders are already working on the recovery.
Nonprofit groups are preparing to serve tens of thousands of meals daily in the most-damaged areas, while state and federal emergency officials are locating temporary housing, including hotel rooms, for storm victims in the weeks or months that they're displaced.
"We are expecting several more days of rain, and our focus now is getting people away from immediate danger," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said as the relenting storm puttered slowly west near the South Carolina border. "And then we will shift into putting our communities back together."
Thousands of the 20,000 people staying in more than 150 shelters this weekend and others waiting it out elsewhere won't be able to return to their homes for good any time soon. Cooper asked displaced residents Saturday to resist the urge to return now and wait until the storm clears out and roads are passable.
Homes have been washed away by storm surge or made unlivable by standing water, fallen trees or other debris. And even if their homes survived intact, hundreds of thousands of utility customers who lack power have limited food options.
The North Carolina Baptist Men's organization planned to begin soon moving kitchen equipment inland, where they expect to prepare 85,000 meals a day when all its feeding operations are up and running. The first units were expected to come online early next week in New Bern and Washington, North Carolina, according to Jack Frazier, the Baptist Men's disaster relief coordinator.
"It's going to be a big operation — very big," Frazier said. The Salvation Army and American Red Cross usually work with the Baptist group by transporting those prepared meals to the hardest-hit areas. Along with other home cleanup and repair work ministries, Frazier said his group works to "basically restore somebody back to where they were as much as we can."
The federal government's approval late Friday of a major disaster declaration in North Carolina means immediate funds can go to help with damage repairs and recovery for eight coastal counties, Cooper said. The number of counties getting this level of help is likely to increase.
State and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who have been on the ground in North Carolina for several days, already are talking about temporary housing options, state Division of Emergency Management director Mike Sprayberry said. They are expecting to use FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, which is paid for by both state and federal funds to put displaced residents in hotel rooms.
"What we want to try to do is to minimize the time that people spend in their shelters that they're in right now," Sprayberry said. "We don't need them going back into their areas until they're cleared safe to go."
The program was used in North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Some people were in hotels for months. In previous hurricanes in North Carolina, residents lived in trailers while they rebuilt or found permanent housing.
The long-term recovery will take years. Although more than $740 million in federal, state and local funds have been spent to address Matthew's damages, state officials are still working to distribute $236 million allocated by the federal government last year to help reimburse or pay for extensive home repairs.
With close to 90 of the state's 100 counties setting up their emergency management offices for this storm, all signs point to an even longer recovery from Florence.
"I'll tell you, this one is so widespread, you're going to have a hard time finding a North Carolinian who is not going to be affected by this storm in some way," Cooper said.