It’s easy to look from a distance at the tiny Pee Dee communities of Nichols and Rosewood, flooded out twice in three years by monster storms, and say of course homeowners shouldn’t rebuild again. Of course the communities themselves shouldn’t even try to come back.
Across the northeast swath of South Carolina, communities are trying to survive after recent flooding shattered informal and formal networks of support.
The decision isn’t so easy or obvious when you’ve invested your life savings in your home, and the property around it. When it’s the only home you’ve ever known. When the financial cost of leaving is compounded by the immeasurable value of community that’s lost when you leave.
But as sea level rise and an evolving global climate promise bigger and more frequent storms, rebuilding on flood-prone property becomes ever more dangerous — and expensive.
So the last thing our government needs to do is to make it easier for people to make the dangerous and expensive choice, through the National Flood Insurance Program that keeps insurance rates artificially low and allows rebuilding in flooded zones, through emergency aid that facilitates staying in place and even through local policies that allow people to rebuild to less-than-sustainable standards.
Just the opposite: Government at every level should do what it can to help people make the responsible choice: to relocate away from the danger. Sometimes, that’s just across the street or up the block. Sometimes it’s across town, or out of town completely.
Has your house ever flooded? Unless you bought it new, or it’s been in your family for generations, don’t be so sure you know the answer.
The National Flood Insurance Program and emergency recovery funds often help people in repetitive flood zones move right back where they were before. Instead, the money should be used to encourage people to start over somewhere else, with extra funds to help those least able to make that move.
Rebuilding homes without making them more resilient against flooding isn’t just taking a personal risk. It spreads the cost of the inevitable repairs across everyone with a national flood insurance policy, and with that program more than $20 billion in debt, across all U.S. taxpayers.
Properties shouldn’t be eligible for federal flood insurance when the evidence shows that their buildings are subject to repeated flooding. A reform bill in Congress would make it easier for the government to buy out homes that flood repeatedly, which is a far more cost-effective and humane solution than simply rebuilding a vulnerable residence. Changes are needed to expand and speed up the process, which can drag on for so long that some people feel like they have no choice but to rebuild.
It’s not just the federal government that needs to adapt. Rather than working desperately to support rebuilding their communities, local governments should consider the long-term: Encouraging people to stay or return, and allowing people to rebuild without fortifying themselves against the next storm — by elevating their property, for instance, and adhering to stricter building requirements — isn’t really protecting anyone. Shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that 400 residents didn’t return to Nichols after the recent floods, instead deciding to start over somewhere safe?
These considerations don’t apply just to Nichols, Rosewood or other communities that have been devastated and are struggling to recover. The same principles apply to the wealthiest enclaves on our coast.
There’s nothing about requiring an extra foot of freeboard that makes it so controversial or portentous an issue as to require that voters weigh in.
The city of Charleston doesn’t do us any favors when it hesitates to require people to elevate their homes beyond federal requirements when they rebuild. It doesn’t do us any favors when it fails to adequately count the damage to flooded properties, allowing them to be rebuilt without meeting even the current requirements. It doesn’t do us any favors when it allows massive new housing developments in areas that are on the edge between buildable and unbuildable.
As a declining portion of the population continues to dispute the changes in our climate, those of us in the Lowcountry live them, and we have to adapt to them. With sea levels rising and storms growing stronger and wetter, federal disaster programs and federal, state and local officials have to shift flooding strategies from recovery to resilience. Because at some point, recovery will be unsustainable for vulnerable communities — including our own.