Vulnerable homes remain in the path of future flooding after Charleston officials failed to flag all the damage caused by rising waters that swamped the region in recent years.
Those oversights put homeowners and taxpayers at risk if floodwaters choke the area in future storms.
Cities are tasked with identifying severely damaged properties after flooding events such as those that left much of the Charleston region underwater in 2015, 2016 and 2017. It’s a key component of the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program aimed at removing oft-flooded buildings from harm’s way and preventing the federal government from shoveling millions of dollars more into properties that will flood time and again.
Charleston staff said they examined hundreds of properties during that three-year period but only found seven that met the threshold for requiring those homes to be elevated or demolished. But a Post and Courier analysis found at least five more severely damaged homes where the city underestimated the impacts or missed the damage entirely.
One such home was nearly purchased for demolition by the city, but the owners decided instead to sell it before the process was completed. Another house had flooded at least nine times over its existence, but it wasn't on the city's list of flood-damaged homes before the Post and Courier asked about it.
What's more, state officials have raised additional concerns about whether Charleston even knows exactly how many homes have been flooded. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are in the process of auditing the city's handling of past floods.
City officials say their process for counting damages has improved with each flood, as inspectors become more experienced with documenting damage. Charleston has also developed a new plan to count damages in the next flood. SCDNR has complimented the new plan.
The re-consideration of flood management has been "a sometimes painful process that's required us to take a long, hard look at our own policies and procedures, from staffing to inspections to enforcement," said Matthew Fountain, the city's stormwater management director.
But the fact remains that the city is left with an untold number of homes in harm's way. The city acknowledges that, and officials say they are re-evaluating their previous findings. It's unclear how long it will take to retrace those past missteps and find these flood-prone homes.
Re-selling flooded homes
Low-lying Charleston sits in a region that has long been susceptible to flooding, a problem that is compounded by the slow crawl of sea level rise. The right combination of lunar phases and wind can create tidal flooding without any rain.
But the onslaught of water that began with historic rainfall in October 2015, colloquially called the "1,000-year flood," caught many off guard when it dropped more than 20 inches in some areas over four days. The next year, Hurricane Matthew brought more rain and surge before it landed as a Category 1 farther north on the coast. In 2017, Tropical Storm Irma set the third-highest record at Charleston Harbor's tidal gauge.
Flooding is a state-wide problem, too: claims paid out to South Carolina under the National Flood Insurance Program have totaled nearly $1 billion, the 10th-highest amount among the 50 states.
About a third of all the federal flood insurance money paid out in SC over four decades was spent in Charleston.
In all, more than 100,000 structures in Charleston sit in FEMA's floodplains, which the agency called "special flood hazard areas." And those buildings are subject to special rules when they are severely damaged.
Under the NFIP, homes that are "substantially damaged" — or have repair costs that exceed 50 percent of pre-flood value — have to align with modern building codes when they are fixed, or be removed. In Charleston, that means any house built before 2015 in a floodplain would need to be lifted at least a foot as it's repaired, and in some cases, far higher.
Local officials are tasked with independently tracking when the cost of damages — or home improvements, which also count — hit the magic number. But in the case of Susan Stumpp's home on Mowler Court in West Ashley, she was never told that the house might need to be altered.
The home sustained nearly $122,247 in damage in floods in 2015 and 2016, according to flood insurance payment records that Stumpp provided. That's about 80 percent of the home's assessed value on Charleston County's tax rolls.
Mowler Court, a street of 10 lots in the Shadowmoss neighborhood, has been the site of some of the most severe flooding in recent years. Two houses, Nos. 21 and 23, have already been demolished in a government buyout program. None of the homeowners on the street have received notification from the city that their homes should be raised.
City officials have told The Post and Courier that in cases where they have pursued buyouts, they have not bothered issuing substantial damage letters, or formal notifications to property owners that their homes would need to be altered. For example, none of the 32 owners of the recently-purchased Bridge Pointe townhomes got these letters.
City officials said that in these cases, they're about to buy the property, so in essence, they would be notifying themselves.
But flood policy experts said it's a bad idea to skip that step, because this paper trail could help in securing some grants.
There's also the possibility that a homeowner would drop out of a buyout program and sell their damaged house on the open market, passing on the problem to a new and possibly unsuspecting buyer. The grant process can take years, and homeowners are not bound to a buyout until the point that they sign a purchase agreement.
If a property owner chose to drop out, "We would double check and make sure well, OK, if you're no longer going to be bought out, let's make sure that you're not substantially damaged, and if you are, make sure you're aware of that before you officially chose to drop out," said Stephen Julka, Charleston's floodplain manager.
In Stumpp's case, the city's data at the time didn't trigger further scrutiny, he added.
She and her husband sold the house to a new couple. They did not specifically mention that the house was included in a buyout application, but they did disclose the recent flooding problems.
“Once you’ve lived through situations like this, you need to research what you’re buying,” Stumpp said. “It’s kind of like buying flooded cars. If you don’t know, you don’t really know how much damage was done.”
Because of federal privacy law, however, it can be nearly impossible for a homebuyer to know for sure whether a house has flooded before if the seller does not elect to tell them. South Carolina's real estate disclosure rules are also vague on the subject of flooding, leaving a gray area on exactly how much information must be shared.
The buyers of Stumpp's former home on Mowler Court, purchased in March, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview despite attempts to contact them by phone, at the home and in a letter.
One of their neighbors across the street, Janis Hicks, said even if buyers know going in that a home was damaged before, the next time a flood comes "You just don’t realize what you’re up against."
Hicks, who lives with her husband Henry on Mowler Court, said their home hasn't flooded since 2005 when they moved in. Still, they've watched their neighbors move in, get flooded, move out, remodel, flood again, and finally abandon ship. The Hickses are the only people left on the street who lived there during the recent floods.
The couple feels stuck. They had no documentation to provide when the city canvassed homeowners for buyout interest because they didn't make a flood insurance claim. They're not sure where they could go but they also want to leave.
"Buy my house. Let me out of here," Janis Hicks said. "Don’t think I don’t panic every time it rains."
Surveying the city
Figuring out whether or not a home needs to be lifted or demolished starts almost immediately after a flood. Inspectors are supposed to fan out across a city's floodplains and collect as much information as quickly as they can on how high the water rose and which structures it affected.
"That’s the first thing a property owner needs to know: What do I need to do before I rebuild?" said Larry Larson, a director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Madison, Wis.
Charleston did send out staff to do these assessments after the floods in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Edye Graves, Charleston's building official, was in charge of that process all three years.
There were hiccups, however. After the 1,000-year flood in 2015, city officials took notes and pictures in the field but didn't always take down information such as how a house was constructed. It was hard to deduce that information from photos after the fact, Graves said, so in following years inspectors took more detailed recordings.
In all three years, inspectors used paper maps and highlighted, by hand, the streets they had driven down. The city is asking for GPS systems in the next budget, Graves said, to remove any user error in recording where the inspector has gone.
"There's always an issue, too, once the water's come down. If there's a clear high-water mark, it's easy to spot. If there's not, sometimes you don't know," Fountain said. "That's why we encourage residents to call in and say, 'Let us know if you have damage, let us know if you have issues.' It's possible that you do get missed. It's a big city."
City officials also said it could be challenging to calculate damage if hazards bar inspectors from reaching a neighborhood, if a property owner isn't home, or if residents balk at allowing staff inside.
Larson said that's no excuse. Inspectors can use multiple tools to determine high-water levels — including marking signposts or trees, for example — while the water is still up, or solicit resident photos of the water. That information can be used to extrapolate how much water ended up in homes.
“Saying that they couldn’t reach the homeowner is hardly adequate justification for saying, 'therefore, we couldn't make a determination,'" Larson said.
City officials say they are following up with property owners and doing their best to work with the information they have, even if it's incomplete.
Whatever information is collected is fed into FEMA's software, which calculates total damage. City officials rely on the numbers that come out but the software's estimates come up short at times.
The city had not been cross-referencing those estimates with available FEMA insurance payout data. That ended up placing the onus on homeowners to challenge the initial findings in some cases.
One home on Seaward Drive, on James Island, was marked as only 20 percent damaged from Tropical Storm Irma. But when homeowners provided city officials with additional information after the fact, Julka did end up determining, a year after the storm, that the cost to repair the house would reach 90 percent of its value.
Its future status remains undecided.
Picking up the pieces
In all, The Post and Courier has found at least eight homes that would likely have qualified for a notification that they should be raised but never received one. Three of those have been bought out or are in the process for a future purchase.
The properties were identified using flood claim data provided after a Freedom of Information Act request to FEMA. Because of federal privacy law, most of the addresses in the information provided to the newspaper were redacted.
That means there may be more affected homes than the newspaper identified.
City officials have access to an un-redacted version of the same information. However, that flood claim information alone can't be used to send out notifications. Instead, Charleston primarily relied on in-person inspections and building permits.
Even though building permits provide an additional source of information, Julka said, it can be limited if homeowners don't get a permit for construction work.
The information that the city says it could use "may not account for all homes that incurred substantial damage during the flooding events in 2015, 2016, and 2017," Julka said.
Flood insurance information is still a good way of checking whether a property might have been missed, or whether damage was under-counted, Larson said. Charleston only started using that data to double-check damage in April, Julka said.
Perhaps the biggest question remaining in Charleston's handling of past floods is whether they've entirely missed some damaged properties. State officials expressed that worry after the city sent them a comprehensive list earlier this year of every damage assessment they'd done after the storms.
"There is concern that this list does not not include all properties that were damaged. The city should use all available flood damage information," SCDNR officials wrote in a June 6 letter to the city. That agency, along with FEMA, is in the midst of a months-long review of the city's floodplain management.
Other cities have struggled with similar problems. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle, for example, found that city's inspectors were systematically low-balling damage amounts in surveys after Hurricane Harvey.
Julka said the city shares the concern that they've missed damage and added that Charleston is working "to review other potential sources of information to attempt to identify additional properties that may have been substantially damaged."
Take a single-story brick home on Curtiss Avenue — the property that was not on the city's damage rolls before The Post and Courier asked about it. The flooding damage to the home, since 2015, reached more than 70 percent after Hurricane Matthew, FEMA data show.
But the owner didn't get a letter from the city. The next year, it flooded again.
This and other homes that have already been battered by flooding are just as in danger as they were for the last storm. The people who own them are staring down another hurricane season.