North Carolina lawmakers on Tuesday allocated $56.5 million for Hurricane Florence recovery assistance, waived school make-up day requirements and extended the voter registration deadline in battered communities.

By afternoon, the legislation was awaiting the signature of Gov. Roy Cooper.

“It’s a start,″ said Democratic Sen. Don Davis of Greenville. “And I think it’s a great start.” 

Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican, said the legislature's intent is to get the state on a path to recovery. Several lawmakers say they expect North Carolina will spend ultimately more on the Florence recovery than it did on Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

In all, 28 counties were declared to be major disaster areas by the federal government, from the Fayetteville region to Wilmington, Jacksonville and New Bern along the coast. Losses are expected to run into the billions, and 39 people have died.

“In no way is this bill aimed at being the final objective or end state of what we’re going to do here,” Meredith said.

The legislature plans to reconvene Oct. 15 to approve further relief.

“It’s going to be a large number,” predicted state Rep. Michael Speciale, a Republican from New Bern.

Many of his constituents near the coast suffered severe flooding. One family he saw is living in tents on their front lawn, he said, because their home is uninhabitable.

“He’s got his kids convinced they’re just camping,” Speciale said.

The $56.5 million includes $6.5 million for school systems in the disaster area to help pay employees for days that the schools were closed. It makes up for revenue that they would have received from the federal government for free and reduced-price meals for students had they been open.

The remaining $50 million is a new Hurricane Florence Disaster Recovery Fund to pay for costs of disaster relief and assistance. A key use of the Disaster Recovery Fund would be to provide local matching funds for federal disaster assistance programs that require local contributions.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Wednesday to approve about $1.14 billion in Florence relief for North Carolina, according to the office of Sen. Thom Tillis, and the president is expected to sign that bill into law in the coming days.

School make-up days

The state's bill passed Tuesday gives flexibility to schools on how much instructional time they would make up because of Florence. In heavily damaged counties, some schools have been closed since before the hurricane made landfall Sept. 14 near Wrightsville Beach.

“We still have over 100,000 students who are not in school,” Mark Johnson, the state superintendent, said.

North Carolina requires public schools to provide at least 185 days of instruction annually. The Florence legislation gives the school systems in the 28 disaster area counties a waiver for as many as 20 instructional days.

This doesn’t mean that they will not make up all 20 days, said Sen. Harry Brown, a Jacksonville Republican.

“They’re going to try to make up as many of these days as they can,” Brown said. “I don’t think any county wants to excuse 20 days of classwork.”

Brown said Onslow County schools had $125 million in damage. In neighboring Jones County, two schools had 6 to 8 feet of water in them. He expects those schools to be condemned.

Schools aren’t scheduled to resume in heavily flooded Robeson County until Monday. New Hanover schools are scheduled to reopen Thursday.

The bill says teachers and other school employees don’t have to make up any instructional workdays that they missed because of the storm in September and October — they are to be paid as if they had worked.

The provision does not apply to teachers and employees of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of local boards of education. Charter schools will decide whether to pay their staffs for missed days, lawmakers said.

The Florence legislation also would extend the Oct. 12 deadline to register to vote by a few days, to Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. in disaster counties. The bill would let local election boards move voting sites to new locations because of damage.

The legislation gives the governor permission to waive several Division of Motor Vehicle fees for people in the disaster counties, including to replace a driver′s license, state ID cards, vehicle title and registration card. Late fees for renewing license plates could also be waived.

The governor also could waive building inspector fees for homeowners as they repair hurricane damage.