As a general rule, houses that are higher off the ground are less likely to flood. That’s not up for much debate.
Yet a proposed change to raise the minimum freeboard requirement — the height of a home’s base above the so-called base flood elevation — in Charleston generated a surprising amount of controversy among City Council members.
Council opted on Tuesday to defer a final vote on an ordinance that would have increased the minimum freeboard from one foot to two feet above Federal Emergency Management Agency flood baselines.
That was the only sensible path forward after an amendment added to the ordinance in March raised concerns from city and state officials that passing it could throw the city’s rules out of compliance with FEMA and risk homeowners’ ability to continue participating in the National Flood Insurance Program.
Before bringing freeboard back up at City Council, there are a few concerns that need to be resolved.
For one thing, Charleston needs to know more accurately how many people would be affected by requiring an extra foot of freeboard. Until recently, the city hasn’t done a very good job of keeping track of home elevations, with the earliest comprehensive records dating back to the 1980s.
So there’s quite a bit of uncertainty about who would be most impacted by the new rules, which has clouded the debate.
When rebuilding after a disaster, homeowners who live in houses that are at or below FEMA’s base flood elevation have to bring their homes up to that level plus the city’s additional height requirements — currently one foot, or FEMA “plus one.” The new ordinance would raise that to FEMA “plus two.”
It’s possible to estimate a home’s elevation by finding out when it was built. Charleston joined the NFIP in 1970, so homes built after then are probably at least at FEMA’s base flood height. City Council increased minimum freeboard to “plus one” in 2015.
Charleston Floodplain Manager Stephen Julka said his department was working to get as close of an estimate as possible as to how many people would be affected by requiring an extra foot of freeboard. Given that much of the city is in a floodplain, the number of homes is likely to be large.
If this all sounds technical, the amendment that killed the first attempt to raise freeboard is even more so.
FEMA rules require that freeboard standards apply to major home repairs — the 50 percent damage threshold — even if that damage comes from something other than a flood.
Councilman Keith Waring argued that those rules could pose a significant hardship on some Charleston homeowners and tweaked the language to stipulate that flooding was the only damage that would trigger freeboard requirements.
That’s a logical enough argument. But city staff warned that language out of sync with federal rules could risk Charleston homeowners’ ability to buy flood insurance. The state Department of Natural Resources, which handles the NFIP in South Carolina, concurred in a letter this week.
City Council needs to drop the freeboard ordinance as it currently exists and bring the issue back up for fresh debate. Charleston’s flooding problems are likely to get worse for the foreseeable future, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to build a safer, more resilient city.
It would make sense to take a new look at freeboard in conjunction with a broader update to the city’s stormwater management rules, which is expected to be ready in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, city officials need to keep working on finding out the full extent of the problem. The numbers shouldn’t be used as an excuse to undermine smart freeboard rules, but they would offer a useful picture of how much risk is out there and how much work we have ahead of us.