The city of Charleston has addressed many of the serious issues raised last year in a Federal Emergency Management Agency report about its flood management program, but correcting some past mistakes could prove more challenging.

Officials from FEMA and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources visited Charleston in August to verify the city was complying with federal regulations —  a routine inspection that's supposed to happen every five years, but hadn't been done since 2007.

Residents sent a letter to the authorities in July alleging the city had failed to protect the community from known flood risks. Charleston had been hit with three major flooding disasters in three years, prompting many to question whether the city was doing enough to fix drainage problems and prevent flood damages.

DNR summarized its findings in a 32-page report on Aug. 30, highlighting four major potential violations of federal law that could cause city residents to lose discounts on National Flood Insurance Program policies. In a worst-case scenario, the city would have lost its ability to offer NFIP coverage altogether, but that's no longer likely to happen.

The city has been in a back-and-forth with the state agency for months to address the concerns. The initial response showed the city has officially resolved two of four major issues, but the correspondence was heavily redacted, making it difficult to determine where exactly the other problems stand.

The report had identified specific properties in flood hazard areas that lacked proper elevation certificates and other information. The city's response concealed those addresses, citing protection under the federal Privacy Act. The Post and Courier has been in discussions with the city about how that information can be made public. 

Probable solutions

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Residents and commuters had to navigate flooding after the Charleston area was inundated by heavy rain that closed roads and caused morning traffic problems on Friday, July 20, 2018. Matthew Fortner/Staff/file

One major concern the authorities identified was that the city hadn't been keeping track of all repairs made on homes in high-risk flood zones after flooding disasters, which is a condition of participating in the NFIP.

If local officials determine that a house has been substantially damaged — meaning the cost to repair it is equal to or greater than 50 percent of its market value — property owners are required to either elevate the home, relocate it or demolish it. 

The report found that the city hadn't completed substantial damage assessments after the past three major floods, so the city is now required to conduct and submit documentation of more than 900 assessments retroactively. The deadline is Feb. 15, which floodplain manager Stephen Julka said he's confident the city will meet.

"We have had a team of several city staff working on reviewing the damage assessments and providing substantial damage determinations since October," he said.

The second issue the city still has to address is missing documentation of home elevations and other building permit information, but specific addresses have been concealed. 

DNR officials have confirmed that the following issues were resolved:

  • The city's Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance was missing language required by the NFIP, such as the dates of the active flood maps and the requirement that officials determine if “proposed building sites will be reasonably safe from flooding” when reviewing development applications. City Council updated the ordinance in September.
  • The report said the city's floodplain manager didn't have a clear enough role and needed to be more involved in the development review process. In response, the city elaborated on the floodplain manager's duties and explained how they would be expanded. 

Willow Walk still at risk

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Mayor Joe Riley speaks to Willow Walk Subdivision residents Monday August 28, 1995. The Shoreham Road residents Jennifer Prentiss, left and her son Jamie Preston along with Mary Sires, right, and her son Eric, speak with Riley about the James Island flooding. City of Charleston employees Howard Chapman and Laura Cabiness join Mayor Riley. Brad Nettles/Staff

One of the city's trickiest problems can be found on Shoreham Road in the Willow Walk subdivision on James Island, near Folly and Fort Johnson roads. 

That’s where 17 homes were built several feet below FEMA’s requirement in the late 1980s, and they were sold even though the city hadn't issued final certificates of occupancy. The city’s Board of Appeals gave the developer a pass on this, which wouldn't be legal by today's standards. About a year later, FEMA gave the city a written reprimand for it, but said, "this action has now legalized the otherwise improper and negligent construction." 

Nothing else was done by any of the authorities to make sure the homes were lifted out of the line of flooding, and many still flood regularly. While the latest report by FEMA and DNR recognized the issue, the city still isn't required to fix the situation because FEMA already had cleared the city of wrongdoing back in 1988.

Former Mayor Joe Riley did lead an effort to improve the drainage in the area, but the flooding persists. In an October interview, Riley said he didn’t know the Willow Walk homes were built below the flood elevation at the time.

FEMA and DNR did reveal in their report that the city has added to the problem because it had not kept track of substantial damages in the neighborhood after it floods. The city will now have to document those assessments.

Ana Zimmerman, who owns one of the routinely flooded homes on Shoreham Road, said the lack of oversight has led to a vicious cycle for decades.

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"This problem started with the city. This problem needs to end with the city," said Ana Zimmerman of the flooding problem on Shoreham Road, where she and her family have left their home in the Willow Walk community on James Island — on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Wade Spees/Staff

After some homes were damaged by floods, owners would fix them up, make cosmetic changes and put the houses on the market, effectively passing the burden to someone else. If the city had monitored repairs made after each flood, it's possible some of those homes would've been required to be lifted, relocated or demolished. 

Zimmerman never wanted to sell her house to someone else. She received a FEMA grant to demolish it, but she still had a mortgage and the bank wouldn't allow it. She said it would cost too much to elevate her slab-on-grade style home.

Worried that flood-related mold inside the home was making her daughter sick, the family moved out of the house and relocated to a house on higher ground on James Island.

Now, the Shoreham house is in foreclosure and is considered abandoned. She posted something of an anti-ad for the home on Zillow, writing, "It is uninhabitable, filled with mold, and non-compliant with federal FEMA standards."

Zimmerman is one of the three authors who wrote the letter to federal authorities, asking for the investigation. 

"A lot of unsuspecting people — because of the city's practices — are mortgaging themselves into horrendous situations that make their children sick and they basically have very few options other than giving the problem to someone else to save their own family," she said. 

Even though fixing the problems in Willow Walk isn't a requirement to be cleared by FEMA and DNR, the report strongly recommended the city find solutions. 

Julka said the city has offered mitigation options to residents, such as FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to buy out their homes using a mix of FEMA and city funds. 

"Participation in mitigation opportunities by the property owner is voluntary, and the city will continue to answer any questions property owners have regarding participation in any mitigation opportunity," he said. 

He said the city has confirmed with FEMA that the Willow Walk homes would be eligible for buyouts. It's unclear if that will be the most effective approach.

Zimmerman still doubts FEMA will give the city funding for the buyouts, and even if it does, she doesn't think federal funds should be used to bail out a mistake made by a local government.

Willow Walk flooding

Floodwater in 2017 breaches homes in the Willow Walk community. Provided

"This started with the city," she said, "it should end with the city."

Adam Beebe, 27, owns the home next to Zimmerman's, but it didn't flood in the last three years. He said he'd only participate in a buyout if the city paid him market value for his property. On the other hand, he suspects it would hurt his property's value if other homes around him were bought and demolished.

"If they're paying 50-60 percent of the market value, well, it doesn't make sense to participate," he said. "But then, you're also kind of shooting yourself in the foot because if the rest of the houses on the street do, you're kind of screwed when you do want to sell."

Other residents on the street declined to be interviewed.

State floodplain managers with DNR were contacted multiple times to answer questions about the details of the report. They didn't respond to inquiries by publication time.

The report by FEMA and DNR noted that the city has 677 repetitively flooded homes, about a quarter of the state’s total and more than any other single community. 

Most of the city’s developments are in the highest-risk flood zones, the report said, and given ongoing development pressures, that trend is expected to continue.

Last month, Mayor John Tecklenburg focused his entire State of the City address on the long-standing problems the city has had with flooding. He laid out a strategy with five general approaches: setting policies to protect people from flood risks; making land-use decisions with flooding in mind; adding more resources to address the costly and complex drainage issues; improving infrastructure; and further engaging the public to help tackle the challenges.

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Follow Abigail Darlington on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.

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