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Thousands of buildings in SC are lower than FEMA wants. That's unlikely to change.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.

Thousands of buildings in Charleston County are lower than the federal government says they should be to avoid flooding.

That leaves the area with one of the nation's largest inventories of vulnerable structures, according to data provided to The Post and Courier. But there’s little federal officials can do to raise these buildings or otherwise protect them. 

There are some 4,000 "minus-rated" buildings in the county, the fourth-highest amount for any county in the United States, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These homes and businesses are vulnerable to hurricane storm surge, the ocean water that gushes onto land during a tropical cyclone.

That's not the only flooding risk in the Lowcountry, where seasonal king tides on Monday pushed saltwater onto land without any storm in sight. 

But, in many cases, owners aren't paying significantly more in flood insurance. So there's no incentive to raise or fix these properties, unless a storm trashes them and they require significant repair. That leaves homeowners in harm's way for the storms FEMA predicts — and for the many storms that swamp a larger area than the agency estimates.

As a state, South Carolina has more than 8,800 such buildings. They are mainly clustered at the shoreline, where storm surge is most likely to be severe and regulations may require that buildings sit more than a dozen feet above mean sea level. FEMA regulates the height of the bottom floor of living space, meaning an enclosed area with electricity. Parking and storage areas under homes designed to let floodwaters wash through do not apply.

In rare cases, a building may have been built too low to start with, as happened with some homes in a James Island subdivision in Charleston. But many of the minus-rated buildings were constructed in the time before FEMA started drawing up maps to show where flooding might strike. Others might have been correct at the time but were later considered too low after FEMA revised the maps. 

"A 1960s rancher, which is a lot of the homes in Charleston, they didn't have any flood map or data to tell them what their true risk was," said Katie Faith, the floodplain manager for Charleston County.

That can lead to odd mismatches on a single street. Thaddeus Grohoski, who lives on Cameron Boulevard on the Isle of Palms, bought a home just a few feet off the ground in 2018. It's one of the original J.C. Long cottages — simple beach homes that the prolific developer built in the ‘40s, after buying much of the land on a then-sparsely populated island. 

Around Grohoski, new houses are going up at much higher elevations. But he hasn't had a flooding issue since he's lived there, and said there isn't evidence the house has flooded in the past. Though slightly elevated, his home is still lower than FEMA requires. 

"I was more worried about the wind damage" and a pine tree on the property that's since been taken down, Grohoski said. He reasoned that the house survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, so he didn't see a significant danger. 

But as sea levels rise, hurricane surge will become higher with it — meaning the storms of the past may not be the best yardstick in the future.

Coastal cluster

Isle of Palms has 355 of the region's minus-rated buildings, according to FEMA's data, the most of the beach communities near Charleston. But it's an example of a trend across the state — most of these properties are bunched up close to the Atlantic Ocean. 

Like elsewhere, it's not clear which of those properties are simply older, and if any may have been built incorrectly in the first place. Across the state, more than 1,500 minus-rated properties, or roughly 18 percent, were built before flood maps were in place, FEMA said. 

It's possible that Hugo played a role. The Category 4 storm is the worst in recent memory for most of South Carolina's coast, with howling winds and surge as high as 20 feet that destroyed some older beach houses.

After the cyclone blew through in 1989, many of the beach houses in the Lowcountry were rebuilt bigger and better, often because they had to conform to newer building codes. But just two years later, FEMA released a new flood map for the area, changing building requirements yet again, said Douglas Kerr, the director of planning, building and licensing on Isle of Palms. 

The new maps required far higher building heights — in some cases, as much as 8 feet higher — so rebuilding done in the two years before was likely already out of date, he said. 

It's also possible that some property owners in beach towns are enclosing the areas underneath their homes, said Maria Cox Lamm, the S.C. state coordinator for floodplain mitigation programs. Sometimes, a beach house owner tries to create a bonus room under the main space of their house. 

While it might be tempting, enclosing a room can backfire. Any electrical wiring that gets flooded would greatly increase repair costs, part of why FEMA doesn't want homeowners to finish low rooms. In one case in the Grand Strand town of Surfside Beach, a homebuyer sued the real estate agent and sellers of a house after being warned that they needed to rip out the electric underneath their main house. 

Staying put

Not lifting homes leads to the same vulnerability, again and again; the risk that in the next hurricane, another wall of ocean surge will come, swamping a home, upending the occupant's life, and sucking more money out of the already financially beleaguered flood insurance program. 

There are few incentives for the owners of these too-low buildings to lift them, itself a costly process that can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars

A few homeowners in the Charleston area have taken it upon themselves to elevate their homes, but for most, the cost is too high.

They can be forced to lift them if the property is damaged and repairs add up to more than half the cost of the building. But that's tracked by local governments, and it's possible that officials miss some damage or repairs to homes. 

In many cases, the cost homeowners pay for flood insurance doesn't reflect their additional risk. Houses that are affected by a change in a flood map and are suddenly too low can "grandfather in" to the less costly rate from before the maps changed. Grohoski is one of many people with flood insurance that has done this. 

"My (price) is way cheaper, because I was just able to take over the existing policy," Grohoski said. 

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Grohoski house

Thaddeus Grohoski's Isle of Palms house is one of several surviving J.C. Long cottages, named after the island's main developer. Though lower than FEMA requires, Grohoski isn't worried about flood risk to his home. Chloe Johnson/Staff

FEMA, for its part, has few enforcement actions available. It can conduct an audit into whether a city is enforcing the rules in the flood insurance program, put a city on probation that gives all flood insurance customers a $50 surcharge on their policies, or kick a community out of the program entirely.

Removal is a harsh measure: it could effectively cripple home lending, because mortgage lenders require home buyers in flood zones to carry a policy. And even for those who own their homes, it would eliminate the federal government's main safety net. 

“First and foremost, we want to work with communities to correct any identified problems," said David Maurstad, senior executive of the flood insurance program. 

In the entire history of the program, removal has only happened 12 times, a FEMA spokesperson said. All but four of those towns were later reinstated. 

The remaining four are all rural communities, with the largest just a few thousand strong.

The village of Chauncey, Ohio, numbering just over a thousand residents in the last census, has long had flooding issues. 

Situated along the Hocking River, it was one of many towns in the Midwest swamped in the Great Flood of 1913. More recently, it has struggled to follow flood rules and in 2007, the Athens News reported that years of violations had led FEMA to demand the town make necessary changes, like cutting openings into the bottoms of homes to let floodwaters pass. 

But two years later, the town was officially kicked out of the program, leaving it without the option of flood insurance money or FEMA funds to complete future flood control projects. 

Rising tide

The thousands of minus-rated buildings in the Charleston area got that designation because of FEMA’s flood maps, a hugely influential tool. 

The drawings are supposed to show areas that would flood in a "100-year" storm, or a tempest with a 1 percent chance of happening each year. 

The maps don't just set flood insurance rates and building heights — they can determine where banks are willing to lend and guide development decisions. But the information they provide is extremely limited, especially in the Lowcountry, where rain, king tides and storm surge can all contribute to flooding. 

The only thing FEMA considers in coastal zones is surge, which is why local officials urge homeowners to also seek out other information on potential flooding.

"This is just one tool. ... This is not the Bible of flooding," said Faith, the Charleston County flooding manager. 

The Charleston region got a stark example of that on Monday, as abnormally high king tides pushed the ocean into the lowest areas of the region. Along 41st Avenue on Isle of Palms,  trucks and golf carts splashed through salty water. It was the latest in a run of high tides that peaked the day before, when the Charleston Harbor tidal gauge broke 8 feet.

While tidal floods alone are often not enough to enter a home, they raise the risk for the whole region, because a storm could always arrive at the same time. And major floods that reach 8 feet or higher are becoming more common — there have been four this year alone, tied for second place in a record that dates to 1953. The top four years for these events have all happened since 2015, according to the National Weather Service.

But the FEMA maps don't consider sea level rise, meaning the building requirements aren't prepared for the increase in flooding events that as already started to arrive. 

"In the future, 50 years from now, you’re likely to have 2 to 3 feet of sea level rise," said Malcolm Spaulding, an emeritus professor at the University of Rhode Island who has analyzed the coastal modeling in the maps. "If I want to build now, I want to build for that risk profile, and I don't want to use today's maps."

DSC_0115 (1).jpg

The Federal Emergency Management Agency only draws coastal flood zones for hurricane surge, but there are other dangers, like this king tide flooding on Oct. 19, 2020. Chloe Johnson/Staff

Some communities go above and beyond the bare requirements laid out in the maps. Many places have a "freeboard" requirement, or a rule that homes should actually be 1 or 2 feet higher than FEMA says. 

But just as a new flood map might show a house being too low, it could also erase the concern of flood vulnerability. Charleston County has been waiting to adopt new flood maps that were released as drafts in the beginning of 2016. When it does, the height requirements for buildings will mostly go down.

About 250 properties in Charleston County will fall out of the "minus-rated" category when that happens, a FEMA spokesperson said. 

For some, the changes are part of a consistent problem with the flood maps. Rob Young, who runs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said flooding commonly reaches far outside of the zones FEMA outlines. 

"Clearly, these FEMA products are really conservative," he said. "They are underestimating the risk."

The new maps might mean better insurance rates, but not everybody sees that as a good thing. It raised eyebrows on IOP, said Kerr, the building manager there. 

"There were people who went through Hugo, and they're seeing areas of the island where there was significant water with Hugo being allowed to build at 1 or 2 feet off the ground," Kerr said. 

So the island has now gone beyond even the common freeboard addition to FEMA's rules. Any new building on IOP, regardless of location, has to be a minimum of 14 feet above mean sea level. 

That gives a slight edge to the worst flooding known there, Kerr said — about a foot higher than the surge produced by Hugo. 

FEMA's rules, though limited, are somewhat similar to a minimum wage. They are the bare basics that have to be covered, though cities and counties can add on to it.

In the future, many communities may find that those basics just aren’t enough — or risk being swamped in the next storm.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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