The federal government still owes more than $12 million to Horry County for damages caused by Hurricanes Matthew and Joaquin, and they won’t be paying that bill any time soon.
FEMA put a freeze on those payments just days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in late August. The agency said that with only $540 million in the bank, they were almost out of money.
Congress replenished that fund last week with more than $15 billion in disaster emergency funding, but FEMA says that’s not enough to lift the freeze. A preliminary estimate by Moody’s Analytics put the cost damages for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as high as $200 billion.
FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak says they don’t know how long the repayment freeze to Horry County and other localities impacted by Joaquin in 2015 and Matthew in 2016 will last.
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“It just depends on when additional funding bills pass,” Hudak said.
Horry County officials say they’re not surprised the federal government fell behind on the repayments, so they were prepared to handle the financial burden.
“It’s not unusual for it to take years,” said Chris Eldridge, county administrator.
FEMA has repaid Horry County about $10,000 for Hurricane Matthew cleanup costs, road and stormwater infrastructure repairs, damages at the Myrtle Beach International Airport and overtime payments for first responders, Eldridge said.
The outstanding bill for Hurricane Matthew is $9.6 million.
Hurricane Joaquin did not directly strike the Grand Strand, but caused massive shoreline damage and flooding as it passed.
FEMA has paid the county $470,000 for Joaquin, but still owes $2.6 million, Eldridge said.
Disaster payments to individuals will not be affected by the funding freeze, FEMA said in a statement.
The county was able to pay for all of the damages and cleanup from the storms with funding held in a general fund reserved for disasters.
The county still has $8 million in the disaster reserve fund, Eldridge said.
“We’re in good shape, but we certainly want our money back,” said Mark Lazarus, council chairman.
“The reserve was specifically put in place for reasons like this,” Lazarus said. “There are cities and towns that don’t prepare, and have catastrophic events that leave them broke. We were well prepared for that not to happen.”
There are still two months left in this year’s hurricane season, and it wasn’t until October of 2015 and October 2016 that Horry County suffered significant hits from major storms.
The Grand Strand coastline also was impacted by Hurricane Irma this week, and county officials are working on a financial estimate of the cost to repair damaged dunes and sand loss.
But is Horry County on solid financial ground to handle a hurricane hit this season without the FEMA payments?
“It will be a struggle, obviously, but we should be okay,” Lazarus said. “As long as they owe us, we know we won’t be broke.”