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Editorial: We need to help people move to higher ground

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wolk drive 2 tuesday after irma.jpg (copy) (copy)

The Shadowmoss subdivision of West Ashley was flooded during Tropical Storm Irma. 

Charleston has been repeatedly inundated by floods. Recent rains have put people’s homes underwater, and many of these same homes likely flooded in the storms of 2015, 2016 and 2017. Residents are increasingly frustrated and organizing to demand local action in a grassroots campaign called Fix Flooding First.

For those who live in West Ashley and other parts of the city who have witnessed water enter their homes and businesses multiple times, they would like nothing more than to move somewhere safer, where they do not have to worry about whether they will flood again.

Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do. Federal disaster programs are mostly geared toward rebuilding in the aftermath of a flood and keeping people in the exact same location that’s proven to be susceptible to rising waters.

If homeowners have purchased coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program, it’s relatively easy to get financial assistance to rebuild over and over again, but incredibly difficult to find help to move to higher ground. Just ask the residents of West Ashley, whose homes have flooded multiple times. Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved funding for the city of Charleston to purchase 48 properties in West Ashley, including 32 Bridge Pointe townhomes in the Shadowmoss neighborhood, finally giving owners the ability to relocate. But it took nearly three years of waiting for that funding to come from FEMA. Why did it take so long?

To get an answer to that question, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., introduced the Promoting Flood Risk Mitigation Act. Working with fellow Republicans and Democrats, they developed this bipartisan legislation, which will require a comprehensive evaluation of FEMA’s efforts to help homeowners escape the cycle of flood-rebuild-repeat. This bill requires a hard look at why it takes so long to buy out repeatedly flooded homes and how that assistance can be provided to families much more quickly. On July 16, thanks to Rep. Sanford, the House of Representatives passed that bill (H.R. 5846). Sen. Scott is now pushing to make sure it passes in the Senate.

South Carolina is not alone in dealing with homes that are susceptible to flooding. The National Flood Insurance Program has paid $5.5 billion to rebuild more than 30,000 of the nation’s most flood-prone homes an average of five times. Roughly half of these 30,000-plus properties have suffered damages that exceed what the property is worth, underscoring that it would be cheaper to help interested homeowners move somewhere safer.

As residents of West Ashley have experienced firsthand, even when the owners of these homes want to move somewhere safer and it would be a better use of taxpayer dollars to help them relocate, it’s difficult and time-consuming to secure assistance to make that happen. People can be left in limbo for years, wondering if and when assistance will arrive or if they will flood again.

The legislation that Sen. Scott and Rep. Sanford have introduced will find out why homeowners, like those in West Ashley, become trapped in an endless pattern of rebuilding and have trouble obtaining assistance to move somewhere safer. The legislation requires an assessment of FEMA’s efforts to support repeatedly flooded homeowners and recommendations for how the agency’s procedures might be streamlined to help more people find safer places to live more quickly.

Sen. Scott and Rep. Sanford are correct to seek solutions to these repeated flooding challenges that the residents of Charleston and communities across the country face, and we commend them for working across party lines to do so.

Robert Moore is the director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water & Climate Team. Laura Cantral is the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

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