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Who’ll build the ark? No one, no one? The future of flooding in the Holy City

August 2, 2018

Flooding is an issue the city of Charleston has always faced. Surrounded by rivers and the harbor, our problem is a historical one and has intensified in recent years with additional development and the impact of rising sea levels, mired in the debate about the impact of climate change.

Let’s face it:  There is a reason it is called the Lowcountry.

 

When it floods downtown, various portions of the city are submerged in knee-level water. More often than not you will see some poor soul’s car unable to escape the rising tsunami. The streets are not the only things affected by flooding; many homes are subjected to the rising water levels and are prone to taking a serious hit from water damage as well. For example, the storm surge from Hurricane Irma in 2017 sent a wall of water into many areas of the city and shut down numerous streets.`

 

Prices for real estate seem to only be going in one direction in the Charleston area — up. It is hard to see what might adversely impact home values but it does demand the question of how historic homes in downtown Charleston — and their values — can be protected from experiencing water damage. The easy solution seems to be to just buy flood insurance and enjoy its protection, but when the issue is this common and prevalent, the cost to protect your investment can add up. Russell Parker, area president of insurance and risk management for Gallagher Insurance, states, “Flood insurance can cost more than house insurance.”

 

The reality is that there is no easy solution, but steps still need to be made, as Drew Grossklaus, William Means’ director of sales and East Cooper broker-in-charge, states, “Something needs to be done because the flooding will only continue to get worse.” One idea that is being considered is to allow renovations to existing historic homes so that they will be in a better position to avoid flood damage, but, as we all know, the problem is these homes are historic. They have architecture that is unique to Charleston and, according to some, they should never be altered from their original state.

Needless to say, the Charleston Board of Architectural Review (BAR), one of the protectors of the history of Charleston, recognizes the need to preserve these homes but has also become sympathetic to the damage that flooding can do to these homes and the expense to maintain them. This is why the BAR has been working on a list of possible guidelines for alterations that may be performed to certain homes to mitigate flood issues.

 

One of the most common proposed alterations being addressed by the BAR is the elevation of certain homes. Chris Silcox, co-owner and account executive of C.T. Lowndes & Company Insurance Agency, states the reason succinctly:  “Elevating a house can prevent more flood claims and can result in lower flood premiums.”

 

That is why the BAR held a Building Elevation Design Workshop on March 2, 2018 to follow-up on their previous workshop held in November 2017. Given that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) rates are determined by where the first floor elevation of a structure is compared to the minimum Federal Emergency Management Agency flood map elevation, there was a focus at the BAR workshop of the Flood Hazard Mitigation program. With Flood Hazard Mitigation, NFIP allows an exemption from a building meeting required elevation standards if the remedy/mitigation negatively impacts the building’s historic designation.

 

Additionally stated on charleston-sc.gov, one dollar of flood mitigation investment equals four dollars of savings in disaster recovery. For example, a flood insurance premium at four feet below base flood elevation could equal $9,500 per year. There are some options to assist FEMA Hazard Mitigation, but the city of Charleston states that there is only $160 million of federal money available nationally, and just $4.2 million of that is available for South Carolina. The most common grants have to do with acquisition and elevation and qualifying properties must have an NFIP policy. And you must wait for the grant to be approved before work may commence.

 

During the second workshop, the panelists addressed the process of reviewing buildings and the categories they fall under. There are four categories that a building can be labeled as. Category 1 (Exceptional) and Category 2 (Excellent) have a similar set of requirements. These buildings should require approval from the BAR and they should be thoroughly reviewed to ensure the structure should be elevated to FEMA requirements, and the use of the FEMA Variance to minimize elevation change is encouraged if you do not trip the 50 percent threshold. It is mandatory to preserve the original architecture for all of these structures. For Category 3 and 4 Buildings, any elevation of 3’-0” or less may be staff approved, and if approved, documentations that includes as-built elevation, floor plans, site plan, photographs, and justification for the proposed elevation must be provided. The panelists also released a set of rules for which building sites should consider. For example, buildings must try to retain paths from the street/sidewalk to the structure and buildings should not be moved to accommodate any additions, such as extra parking. 

 

While flooding can potentially have a negative impact on home values, another potentially even bigger negative issue is that the NFIP is set to expire on July 31, 2018. There have been six stopgap measures and two brief lapses in the flood insurance program in 2017, but Congress has passed no long-term bill. Many people are calling for reform of the system, given that it is currently $25 billion in debt, it is a taxpayer funded program and it is prone to encouraging development in flood prone areas but the uncertainty of a long term fix affects home purchases as lenders require flood insurance in flood designated areas. The National Association of Realtors described in September 2017 the effect on closings if the federal flood insurance program expires, stating, “The country has been here before, and we know what happens if the National Flood Insurance Program expires. Homebuying activity grinds to a halt, to the tune of 40,000 lost or interrupted sales every month. Meanwhile, existing homeowners and commercial entities may find their largest asset unprotected if the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) can’t renew NFIP policies that expire.”

 

Charleston has estimated that it will require about $2 billion worth of funding to pay for drainage and flood protection projects to flood proof Charleston, with one of those projects being the third phase of raising the Low Battery. As stated by the city government, “This phase of the project consists of concrete repairs and rehabilitation of approximately 5,000 linear feet the Seawall at the Low Battery in 500 foot sections along with proposed improvements along Murray Boulevard and at White Point Gardens” Also, according to the city of Charleston 2018 budget, this phase has been granted a total project budget of $100 million and is expected to be complete in 2025, but there is no guarantee of funds. The issue will only get worse if a solution is not found. There was a recent proposed bill introduced in the General Assembly that offered a possible solution to this issue, allowing city and county councils in South Carolina to use tax money acquired from tourism to fund flood-prevention projects but the bill did not pass. Supporters of the bill have promised to try again next year. 

 

Despite the issues with the NFIP, there are already some improvements being made downtown. Since 2006, the city of Charleston has been working on a three-phase plan to improve the flooding issues in the Market Street area. The first two phases of the plan included the construction of a deep tunnel beneath Market Street, which will collect water and carry it to a newly upgraded pump station. The third and final phase, which the city hopes to start by the end of this year and have completed in two years, will provide more collection areas to which water can drain from the surface thru the tunnels to pump stations.

 

Charleston has always been a port city. Its beauty comes from the fact it is surrounded by water, thus its a very desirable place to live. Home supply has struggled to keep up with demand, thus the pressure to build is great. Even as the city is investing in numerous new drainage projects, it continues to allow developers to build new homes in flood prone areas without some of the foresite and flood protections that other coastal communities have implemented. Perhaps with effective and reasonable planning, reasonable guidelines and with reformed and long-term flood insurance protection, property can be protected and values continue to rise.

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