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Congress breaks stalemate, set to send millions of dollars to help storm-ravaged SC

South Carolina will receive millions of dollars in federal aid to offset damages from Hurricanes Florence and Michael last year.

It will be welcome news for the state’s residents hit hardest by the massive storm. According to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the situation was set to become dire “in the coming weeks, not months,” if Congress did not quickly overcome partisan disagreements and pass a disaster aid bill.

“People are hurting in the areas and they want relief,” said Graham on Thursday.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a $19.1 billion bill to help victims of recent deadly storms and wildfires. The U.S. House is expected to clear the bill for President Donald Trump on Friday.

As part of that bill, South Carolina could apply for millions of dollars available in grants through a few different funds earmarked for people and places affected by Hurricane Florence and Michael specifically.

South Carolinians will be eligible for a portion of $740 million “to study and build high-priority flood and storm damage reduction projects.” The state also could tap into some of a $414 million account to “provide resources for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure resiliency projects, waste disposal needs, issues with underground storage tanks and technical assistance.”

These funds could be crucial to South Carolina, which incurred damaging floods in coastal areas of the state.

“These people have been waiting way too long,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., who represents Horry County, the area hit hardest by the storms.

South Carolina also will have access to some of $3 billion in farm aid, to be made directly available to farmers in southeastern states affected by recent hurricanes, flooding in the Midwest, tornadoes in Alabama and wildfires in California.

Farmers across the country, have faced a particular setback after Hurricanes Florence and Michael, including in South Carolina where the damages to the state’s agriculture economy come out to a combined $205 million.

State Rep. Roger Kirby, D-Florence, who represents a large swath of farmers in the Pee Dee region hit hard by recent hurricanes, welcomed news of the bill’s advancement.

“We had a lot of people who opted out of farming this season because they couldn’t afford to get crops in the ground,” Kirby said. “So, this is huge.”

‘Dire Straits’

Congress has been trying for months to reach an agreement on a disaster relief package.

About a month ago, lawmakers and Trump couldn’t agree on how much money to allocate for recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, still struggling after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Republicans who control the U.S. Senate agreed to spend $600 million to fund Puerto Rico’s lapsed nutrition assistance program, but Trump said he would not sign a bill that spent so much on the territory.

This past week, another standoff occurred when Trump said he wouldn’t sign a disaster relief measure that didn’t include money for humanitarian aid for migrants at the southern border. Democrats were reluctant to include that funding without reassurances the administration would spend the money properly.

Ultimately, as Congress prepared to leave for a one-week recess — and face the wrath of constituents still waiting for relief — Trump relented and allowed lawmakers to move forward with a bill that did not include the border money but did provide $6 million to Puerto Rico.

But up until Thursday, with so much uncertainty and no end in sight to break the stalemate in negotiations, South Carolina lawmakers took action to help the state’s struggling farmers: They sent a bill to Republican Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday that includes a one-time pot of $25 million to help farmers affected by hurricanes Florence and Michael.

The $25 million will flow through the state’s Department of Agriculture into a similar program set up for farmers after the historic 2015 S.C. floods. Through the agency’s farm aid program, farmers can apply for grant money by verifying their crop losses.

This money will help farmers who lost their soybean, cotton and peanut crops, among others — amounting to thousands of dollars in losses in a more than $40 billion industry in South Carolina.

“The farming economy is in really dire straits in South Carolina, because we’ve had all of these back-to-back storms and the two hurricanes that we had last year,” said Stephanie Sox, spokeswoman for the S.C. Farm Bureau. “This (federal aid) will be a huge step in the right direction for farmers.”

But legislators added a caveat: if Trump signed a federal disaster aid bill, the state could pocket the money or farmers would have to return it back.

Trump could sign the bill as soon as Friday.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.