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Coastal Carolina collects data to help Horry, Georgetown counties assess flooding risks

SOCASTEE — As the Coastal Explorer chugged along the Intracoastal Waterway at Osprey Marina, it let down a piece of metal into the water behind it. Though the metal looked more like a rocket ship than anything, really it was scanning for any divots or bumps on the bottom of the waterway.

More roughness in the bed means more flooding, said Paul Gayes, director of Coastal Carolina University's marine and wetland department.

Just a mile upstream, the South Carolina State Guard dove into the water to attach water-quality sensors to the buoys. And back at the dock, a weather station was installed to measure rainfall's velocity, direction and temperature, among other things.

Water quality and weather patterns also influence flooding, Gayes said, more specifically how floodwater travels and what areas it will impact the most.

These three data collectors are part of the Smart River Research program installed at the marina on May 17. CCU's Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies partnered with Duke Energy, various state water and flood agencies, and Horry and Georgetown counties on the project to monitor, gauge and develop strategies to address flooding in both counties.

Gayes said this data collection, funded in part by the National Science Foundation and Florida Atlantic University, is the first of its kind in both counties and will give policymakers and stakeholders a better understanding of the true risk of flooding in their areas.

The areas around the Intracoastal, such as Socastee, are transitional areas, Gayes said; they're not necessarily the beach, but not necessarily inland enough to be dealt with exclusively in either fashion.

SonarscanCCUfloodprogram.jpg

The rocket-shaped sonar scanner gets dragged behind the Coastal Explorer and assesses the floor of the Intercoastal Waterway. A rougher floor means more flooding, said Paul Gayes, director of Coastal Carolina University's marine and wetland department. Demi Lawrence/Staff

"A large amount of the economy and whatnot is in this focus, which is especially challenging and complicated because it is driven on all sides," Gayes said, making a V shape with his hands to show how floodwater comes to the area from both the coast and upland. "It's influenced by the ocean, it's influenced by the upper basin, by local rainfall, its influenced by groundwater changes."

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State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said he visited a home in Socastee that flooded 15 times in the last five years. No one can live in this environment, he said, and this program will allow both counties to determine the necessary steps they need to take to mitigate floodwaters because there is not much data to go off of as of right now.

"Through these problems, we have to figure out a way for nature and humanity to coexist, and today is the manifestation of that," Goldfinch said.

As the guard members dove in their wetsuits to attach censors to the buoys, state Floodwater Commission Chairman Tom Mullikin hopped in the water, a bright yellow life vest over his polo and slacks. Mullikin, a seasoned environmental lawyer and advocate in South Carolina, said he just had to get in and see the process for himself.

The data collection is what success looks like, Mullikin said. The issue of flooding is too big for just one jurisdiction to address, he said, and partnerships and teamwork are the sole reason it was brought to fruition.

"A great man once said that this is no time for 'the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,' and it's true," Mullikin said, referring to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.

If all goes to plan, the bipartisan program will remain in place permanently, Gayes said. Long-term data collection is hard to come by, he said, and as floodwaters and tides continue to rise and close in on areas like Socastee, it will be important to have numbers to base decisions off of.

"You can't assess how strange something is or how extreme something is unless you've got a time series, so it's really critically important to not only get the spatial resolution to be improved but also a time series," Gayes said.

Follow Demi Lawrence on Twitter @DemiNLawrence.

Demi Lawrence reports on Georgetown County for The Post and Courier. She graduated from Ball State University in 2020, and previously was an intern at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Indiana and Indianapolis Monthly.

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