Conway flooded road.jpg (copy)

Crabtree Swamp overflows onto the roadway in Conway Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

This week, the city of Conway will close on the first properties acquired through a buyout program in the flood-prone neighborhood near Crabtree Swamp. 

The seat of Horry County, which is nicknamed "Rivertown" and has a district along the Waccamaw River that has helped fuel its resurgence, was partially underwater for weeks earlier this year as that waterway swelled with rain dumped by Hurricane Florence. 

The buyouts that are nearing closing didn't make the list because of Florence, however — they're just now reaching the end of a long process sparked by Hurricane Matthew, two years ago. 

Still, Florence seems to have changed some minds among those who were on the fence. City of Conway spokeswoman Taylor Newell said that 43 property owners were pursuing the buyout process before the storm, and after Florence, an additional 32 have asked to be added. 

"You've got homes that have been flooded year after year after year, and homeowners who are like 'What can we do to get me out?'" Newell said. "This has been the option that some have been grateful to turn to."

In Conway, the buyouts are financed largely by more than $11 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Homeowners will be required to pay 25 percent of the demolition cost, Newell said. 

It's a program meant to avoid future damages in places that are likely to flood again. After the properties are bought, they essentially have to remain empty in perpetuity, with no new structures built on the land. Similar efforts are under way now in some flood-prone areas of West Ashley in Charleston.

Buyouts in Columbia after the 2015 flood are also still in progress, said Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the S.C. Emergency Management Division. EMD is the state agency that coordinates buyout programs and other projects meant to make communities more resilient in future disasters. 

"This is not a disaster recovery program, and I think a lot of people get confused with that," Becker said. 

'Becoming more frustrated'

While removing structures from the likely path of future flooding seems like a logical response to repetitive floods, research shows it works better in some situations than others. 

A recent analysis  from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that the financial outcomes differ greatly among cities and towns that apply for buyout funding. The work has been submitted for review by the journal Natural Hazards. 

Christian Kamrath, who worked on the study as a graduate student at UNC, said initially, researchers were skeptical that buyouts would always pay off in the long run for municipalities. While buyouts can eliminate many future costs related to emergency response, many times, FEMA will reimburse municipalities after disaster strikes. 

But in cases where several contiguous properties were bought out, allowing a city to create a park or another type of outdoor amenity, the community benefited. Incentives that kept flood victims in the same town also helped local governments maintain their tax base over time. 

Because most buyout programs are voluntary, it can be challenging to avoid pockmarking a neighborhood with randomly spaced empty lots. However, Kamrath said social forces may encourage people to stay or leave. Basically, if all the neighbors are going, it might be time to go, too. 

Hazard mitigation programs like buyouts are also starting to look more attractive as consecutive disasters make local officials reconsider their land use, he added. 

"The cycle of damage and rebuild, I think a lot of people are becoming more frustrated with that cycle and trying to break it as much as possible," he said. 

Emotional decision

Buyouts can lead to heartbreak for residents with a longtime connection to their communities. And even if a property isn't eligible for federal assistance, programs in a nearby neighborhood can bring severe impacts. 

Conway's Trinity United Methodist Church in Conway stands next to the Sherwood neighborhood that flooded during Florence and Matthew. The church is facing a bill for damage that may reach $3 million, pastor Kim Strong said.

Strong arrived to lead the congregation in July and said locals doubted that the effects of Florence would be worse than Matthew. But unlike that prior storm, water entered Trinity's sanctuary. It's now been stripped to bare concrete block on the inside walls and to the dirt on the ground. 

All five of the campus' buildings were flooded, and Strong said the church did not have flood insurance. At least one building will have to come down, he added, but there's a bigger decision to be made over whether it's worth staying on the property in the long term.

The choice, he said, is "based on the heartstrings really.... (of) people who grew up in that area, born and raised, got baptized in the church, got married in the church, versus the wisdom of moving back into a place that's been drastically flooded."

Of the church's five buildings, only the parsonage where Strong and his wife live is eligible for a buyout. Everyone else on the street is leaving, he said. 

And for a church that draws most of its congregation from within just a few miles, it remains to be seen how Trinity can recover in the same place if much of Sherwood disappears. 

"If half the neighborhood is gone and turned back into what they call green space, it’s certainly going to change the parameters of the community," Strong said, "and this is very much a neighborhood church."

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