New South Carolina Law Creates Resilience Office to Address Flooding

By MICHELLE LIU | October 15, 2020

After five years filled with unprecedented flooding, South Carolina has now established an office to marshal the state’s efforts in stemming floodwaters and coordinating recovery and relief efforts.

Governor Henry McMaster held a ceremonial signing Tuesday in Charleston to commemorate the passage of the new law.

Scientists have linked the increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather to human-caused climate change, which is causing slower, rainier, more powerful and more destructive hurricanes.

According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, by 2045, chronic flooding could inundate more than 16,000 homes along the state’s coast and low-lying areas, with about 3,000 of those in the areas surrounding Myrtle Beach. The region’s subtropical climate and extensive beaches attract more than 19 million visitors each year.

The act creates an Office of Resilience that will incorporate the current Disaster Recovery Office and handle funding for flood projects and federal disaster aid across the state. The office, led by a governor-appointed chief, will oversee a statewide plan addressing flood risks and mitigation efforts. Towns and counties will be required to fold resiliency measures into their comprehensive plans as well.

The law also establishes a fund for local governments to voluntarily buy out properties that have flooded repeatedly and remove them from floodplains, though lawmakers did not appropriate any money to that fund this year.

South Carolina joins a handful of states with offices aimed at tackling climate-related disaster mitigation and recovery efforts, including Florida, New Jersey and North Carolina.

The creation of the funds are smart investments that will eventually save taxpayer money, said Yaron Miller with the Pew Charitable Trusts Flood-Prepared Communities Initiative.

Miller cites a 2018 study by the National Institute of Building Sciences that found every dollar spent on hazard mitigation efforts could save $6 in future disaster costs.

Major flood disasters over the last five years have cost the state billions. Compounded by rainfall from Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, historic floods devastated areas in the central and coastal parts of the state, causing about $2 billion in damage. Hurricanes Matthew and Florence followed in 2016 and 2018.

The new law comes after the 2018 formation of the South Carolina Floodwater Commission, a group convened by McMaster that studied solutions for flooding such as artificial reefs, how to protect important infrastructure from floodwaters, as well as how to get federal funding for flooding-related projects.

Another bill signed by the governor this session addressing water woes lets local governments like Charleston use hospitality taxes to pay for flooding and drainage projects in tourist areas.

The bills scraped their way through a legislature beset by problems produced by the coronavirus pandemic, with the resilience bill coming to a debate on the Senate floor late in a special session last month.

Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, initially introduced the resilience bill in 2018. He told the Associated Press the rushed pace of the session likely helped move the bill through its final stages. Goldfinch said he was galvanized to draw up the legislation after helping a woman in Socastee clean out her repeatedly-flooded house and watching her break down because she couldn’t afford to move.

“Clearly we need to address some of these problems, and moving people out of the lowlands is a simple solution, a simple yet elegant solution,” Goldfinch said.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, a sponsor of the resilience bill who also drafted the hospitality tax bill, said the new laws show a growing recognition of the need to tackle climate change-related problems in even Republican state legislatures.

“It’s going be a work in progress as to see what we can accomplish,” Kimpson said. “But we know this: not having a plan is a plan to fail.”

McMaster has not yet announced an appointment for a chief resilience officer.

Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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