An initial report from the S.C. Floodwater Commission released Monday offers plenty of suggestions for shoring up the state’s defenses against “rains, storms, hurricanes and tides.”
Some are good, such as protecting and building natural defenses like wetlands and oyster reefs or adopting a “value-added” approach as is the practice in the Netherlands. Others are ambitious but maybe a little impractical, like building miles of artificial reef as a defense against storms or a 400-acre lake to store runoff.
But perhaps the biggest potential for the commission to make a difference is in finding every potential funding source for flood defenses, particularly at the federal level, and making sure those resources are spent wisely.
The recent track record is spotty at best.
Four heavy rain or tropical weather events since 2015 — the 1,000-year flood, Hurricane Matthew, Tropical Storm Irma and Hurricane Florence — resulted in more than $600 million in federal disaster relief funding approved but not necessarily disbursed or spent.
Much of that money hasn’t materialized, according to the report. And the state lacks a coordinated plan for using disaster relief funds wisely to build protection against future storms rather than simply returning to a vulnerable status quo.
That’s particularly important in smaller communities that might lack the resources to conduct thorough scientific studies and identify key infrastructure needs. But water doesn’t respect city limits or county lines, and statewide planning must be comprehensive.
Commission members also found that community development block grants for disaster recovery had been used almost exclusively on housing needs in the past. Certainly housing is a critical necessity, but that money can and should also be used on infrastructure and mitigation to prevent future damage.
Congress must make this process more straightforward — and save untold billions — by inverting disaster spending to focus more on defense against storms and flooding rather than waiting to respond after the fact.
Taken to a perverse extreme, one could argue that the current system rewards negligence at the state and local level by providing bigger payouts for more extensive destruction.
But even in a best-case scenario, the inherent stress and chaos that follow in the wake of natural disasters creates a less than ideal situation for making forward-thinking decisions in the long-term best interest of residents — particularly without a preexisting plan of action.
It makes much more sense, economically and morally, to invest at least as much in disaster preparation as in recovery.
To that end, South Carolina needs billions of dollars in new and upgraded defenses against higher seas, stronger storms and other consequences of a changing climate. Federal aid will be essential.
But until Congress reshapes the way it handles natural disaster spending, it will be up to state officials to make the best possible use of limited resources. And that is perhaps the most pressing single long-term goal for the S.C. Floodwater Commission.