Maurice Brown could barely believe his eyes. 

Crosstowne Christian Church, a building off Bees Ferry Road that has flooded three times in the past four years, appeared unscathed. 

Brown and a partner circled the building in a city of Charleston truck, then got out on foot. A fringe of mud at the bottom of the building, near the main entrance, looked suspect, but it was likely from rain splashing on the ground as it fell off the roof. 

“I don’t see any water marks. That would be surprising,” Brown said. 

Brown, who works in the city's building inspections department, was out last week doing the same job as 35 others on Charleston's payroll: walking the streets to check for storm damage from Hurricane Dorian. As of Wednesday, more than 28,000 properties had been visited. 

It's a crucial job in a flood-prone city like Charleston, and one that's required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After a destructive storm like Dorian, cities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program are charged with carefully counting up the damage and how much it cost. 

The process is so important because a structure in a floodplain damaged to 50 percent or more of its value is supposed to be lifted or removed. The rule is a linchpin to making sure oft-flooded homes aren't paid tax dollars for damages that happen over and over. 

But a Post and Courier investigation found in June that Charleston has missed damage in past storms, meaning that there are still people living in flood-prone homes that might have otherwise been removed or protected.

Even as Charleston has improved its process for counting damage, the work can be complicated. 

Brown visited Crosstowne on Sept. 6, the first full day after Dorian passed, when most destruction would have still been relatively evident. But with each passing day, water dries up and property owners remove the fallen trees.

“If you don’t do it pretty quick in the flooded areas, we lose the benchmarks we need," said Gary Pope, another city employee, as he canvassed the East Side with Derick Graham the same day. 

map planning.jpg

Gary Pope, inspections supervisor for the City of Charleston, left, goes over a map of James Island at a McDonald's with code inspectors George Meadowcraft, center, and Randy Milligan on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. The city has a team of inspectors who drive every street to assess structural damage following hurricanes. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Pope and Graham faced other issues: The tablet app they were using to log damage briefly had issues connecting to a central map back at city offices, so Charleston's floodplain manager, Stephen Julka, couldn't see their entries. 

Julka said staff were able to resolve the issue relatively quickly. 

"Any time we have to run through this exercise, its a good way for us to identify those types of little glitches and get them fixed," he said.

The app requires city employees to note that a property has been visited and whether it was damaged and to what extent. If it has been impacted by a storm, workers have to collect detailed information on how the house was constructed.

That includes features as minor as whether a roof has asphalt shingles or clay tiles and whether a house has a basement (an enclosed space under the ground), a lower crawlspace (an enclosed space that's technically above ground) or neither.


Charleston City Code Inspectors Gary Pope, left, and Derek Hogan, right, speak to Sandra Frampton about damage on her house from a fallen tree following Hurricane Dorian on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019 on James Island. Lauren Petracca/Staff

A key drawback of the process is that city officials are unlikely to catch damages that aren't visible from the outside if a homeowner isn't around to talk or let them inside when they arrive.

In other cases, homeowners might be hostile to a public employee trying to log the condition of their home. When that happens, employees are encouraged to leave and note in the app that the owner was resistant, and city officials will try to follow up again later, Julka said. 

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle found that, in some cases, public employees might underplay the damage they see, because they know that their counts can lead to the difficult process of home elevation or demolition. 

But the reality is that Hurricane Dorian didn't wreak nearly as much havoc as weather forecasters said was possible. Brown kept checking for water marks, but over and over, residents in oft-flooded sections of West Ashley, near Church Creek, told him the water hadn't come.

“I don’t know why I’m stuck in the mindset of flood, flood, flood," Brown said.

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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