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SC lawmakers approve flood czar and resilience office, but funding won't come before 2021

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Bicyclists tread through high tide flooding at the intersection of Hagood Avenue and Line Street on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

South Carolina legislators approved a new state office Wednesday to organize flood projects and a chief resilience officer to lead it, appointed by the governor. 

The bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster, and a spokesman said the governor plans to sign it.

McMaster has pushed the idea of a czar to tackle sea level rise and extreme weather in the past, including it in his executive budget. 

The catch: no money was included to fund the bill this year, so if lawmakers commit funds next year, the earliest the office could help pay for flood control projects is after July 2021.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor will likely announce his pick for resilience officer after the new year, so the Senate has time to confirm that person as the budget is being drawn up. 

State Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who helped make significant updates to the bill in the House, said it puts the state on a "trailblazing path" because only a handful of other states have established resilience positions.

The bill started as a revolving fund for flood projects, pre-filed by state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, at the end of 2018. It was designed to pay the local share — sometimes 25 or 30 percent — for federally funded projects like buying and demolishing homes that have flooded repeatedly. 

Earlier this month, a major revision in the House added a resilience chief and created a new office. It will absorb the existing Disaster Recovery Office that then-Gov. Nikki Haley established in the wake of 2015's 1,000-year flood. In the immediate term, the staffers with that office will now report directly to the governor. 

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"We have a structure now for the purchase of homes that have been repeatedly flooded, and that's a really huge deal," Goldfinch said. 

Some communities have embarked on their own flood control projects already. The city of Charleston, for example, has bought and torn down dozens of continually swamped homes, and in some areas secured grants to convert the bare land into wetlands that sponge up floodwaters.

Goldfinch said the revolving fund could be used for other work, too, like building or removing dams or fixing flood-prone roads. 

But the main objective of the office will be to create a flood resilience plan for the whole state, taking into account the recommendations of the all-volunteer S.C. Floodwater Commission created by McMaster to investigate flooding fixes around the state

"This bill is going to change the dynamics of South Carolina, put some emphasis on areas that long needed the emphasis," state Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said, during a Ways and Means Committee hearing on the bill this month. 

Mikaela Porter contributed to this report.

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