Mudslide in Polk County, May 2018
A woman walks along what used to be a road in Polk County in May, after a series of storms caused mudslides that took out buildings and roads in the region. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management

Western North Carolina communities counting on federal aid to help repair damage caused by May storms were disheartened by last week’s Federal Emergency Management Agency decision to deny Gov. Roy Cooper’s request for federal assistance.

As Carolina Public Press reported ahead of the announcement, the decision hinged on whether FEMA recognized the rain events in May as one or two disasters.

FEMA’s official denial letter, signed by Administrator Brock Long, stated the agency was treating the damage as being caused by two separate events.

“Based on our review of all the information available, it has been determined that the damage identified in your request resulted from separate and distinct events, none of which were the severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and local government,” Long wrote.

“Accordingly, we have determined that supplemental federal assistance is not necessary.”

Stranded RV after May 2018 mudslides in Polk County
A recreational vehicle sits stranded after mudslides caused by heavy rains in Polk County in May. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management.

State-level response

This decision comes after North Carolina has already been approved for assistance from other federal programs, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Though this assistance provided some relief, it did not cover all damage in the 13 counties for which Cooper had requested assistance.

“Five people died as a result of these storms, and many other suffered damage to their homes and businesses,” Cooper said in a press release.

“Many roads, bridges and driveways were washed out. People in Western North Carolina need help recovering, and we will keep doing everything we can to get it to them, including appealing this disappointing decision by FEMA.”

The state has 30 days to submit an appeal and is working on the request to send back to FEMA.

Polk County home after May 2018 mudslide
A Polk County home is partially submerged after a mudslide in May. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management.

Local response

Mayor Steve Little of Marion said he was disappointed in the outcome.

“The decision is doubly bad,” Little said. “FEMA took too long to make a decision and then made an unjust decision. It is a shame that FEMA could not understand that the flooding events taking place between May 15 and 31 were connected and were a one-two punch.”

Though Marion has made some progress in cleaning up, the cost is putting a burden on the city. According to City Manager Bob Boyette, if FEMA does not reverse its decision, the taxpayers of the city will be forced to pay for the damage.

According to a report from the city, the total damage incurred by the city amounts to $178,000. The state can help pay for some of that but can only grant up to 75 percent. If FEMA approves aid, the full cost would be covered.

Polk County Manager D. Marche Pittman said his county has already absorbed the cost for the damage, but individuals are still reeling from the destruction.

The county was able to pay for personnel and equipment used for cleanup but still needs money from FEMA or the state to cover damage for residents.

“We still have four families who are without homes,” Pittman said. “In 24 years in county government I’ve never seen damage like this. It was devastating.”

At a recent Board of Commissioners meeting, $15,000 in donations from PSNC and Duke Energy was appropriated to a local nonprofit to help Polk County residents. Pittman said this type of work is all the county could do without further assistance.

“The best outcome would be FEMA reversing their incorrect decision, which was based on technicalities, and providing the financial support needed by the state and local governments,” Boyette said.

“The most pressing needs for the city of Marion — and likely most other local governments — are financial. We just need to know that FEMA will provide the financial assistance that is warranted.”

Road damage after heavy rains in Polk County in May 2018
Water runs off the ruins of a highway in Polk County around damaged pipes following heavy rains that struck the area in May. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management.

For more information:

FEMA denial letter:

Previous Carolina Public Press coverage:

Boat rescue during Polk County flooding in May 2018
Emergency teams approach flooded areas by boat in Polk County in May. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management.

Support independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina

Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative reporting for all North Carolinians.

Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need to ask for your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative journalism takes a lot of money, dedication and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.

So, if you believe in this, too, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. Your gift could be DOUBLED right now. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Mudslides surround homes in Polk County in May 2018.
This aerial image shows homes in the path of a mudslide in Polk County in May. Courtesy of Polk County Emergency Management.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. You may republish our stories for free, online or in print. Simply copy and paste the article contents from the box below. Note, some images and interactive features may not be included here.

Karrigan Monk is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *