Water flooded Charleston’s streets during high tide on a storm-free day. Photo credit: NOAA

SC - In Charleston, Floods Become a Fact of Life

As Vulava sees it, the only long-term solution for towns like Charleston is stark: a retreat from the coastline. “Current coastal development is not planning for climate change,” he said. “More work is needed. Too many existing homes within peninsular Charleston are under threat.”

This story is part of WhoWhatWhy’s series about how climate change is affecting towns across America. Each member of our reporting team “adopted” a town; looked into the climate-caused problems it faces, from floods to fires; asked local experts and residents about unusual weather patterns they’ve witnessed; and quizzed town officials about any plans they have to address the challenges posed by a warming world.

Stylized map of Charleston showing important sites.
Leslie Agan / WhoWhatWhy

Sharon Richardson moved to Charleston, SC, with her three daughters to pursue a job in coastal conservation.

“[It] was a really good, safe place,” she thought, after finding a new home on James Island, south of downtown, with a high school nearby that seemed like a perfect fit for her daughters.

Of course, Richardson knew the area was experiencing more flooding as a result of climate change and that the problem would only worsen, but she took the gamble, reasoning that the house was newly constructed and elevated to let floodwaters flow through the garage.

After just six weeks, however, Richardson and her daughters watched Hurricane Joaquin transform Charleston’s cobblestone streets into a network of shallow canals.

That was in 2015. Two years later, on September 11, 2017, Richardson nearly lost her home. “The ocean was coming up out of the marsh,” she recounted, “and all of a sudden it just accelerated so quickly because the water has nowhere to go except up.” Hurricane Irma formed moats surrounding Richardson’s home and those of her neighbors.

North Charleston, SC, Hurricane Joaquin
In 2015, Hurricane Joaquin brought 15 inches of rain to North Charleston. Photo credit: North Charleston / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“When the water rose,” she said, “I definitely started to panic because I was like, I cannot drive out of here now. I am stuck.” Richardson felt a sense of helplessness as she realized how a situation that didn’t seem threatening at first could quickly take a dangerous turn. “Had the tide kept coming in … the house would have been underwater.”

Fortunately, the floodwaters stopped in her yard, and the house was spared.

home, flooding, James Island, SC
Kristopher Fowler’s house on James Island, SC, flooded three times in the three years he lived there. He called insurance payments a “Band-Aid” that never fixed the underlying problem. Photo credit: Courtesy of Kristopher Fowler

“Data is clearly showing a direct correlation between increased warming of ocean water, the atmosphere, and coastal flooding,” said Vijay Vulava, a professor of environmental geochemistry at the College of Charleston. “The flood events are becoming more frequent as well as more severe.”

Here’s how Charleston has been affected since Richardson moved in:

In 2015: The city experienced a 1,000-year flood event — statistically speaking, a flood with a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring in any given year. Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 storm, battered Charleston and resulted in viral photos of people standing waist-deep in water or kayaking through downtown streets. Flash flooding caused significant damage to properties and infrastructure, and many people had to be rescued by emergency workers.

In 2016: Charleston set a new record for the number of days of tidal flooding. The same year, Hurricane Matthew slammed into the coast just south of Charleston. After Matthew, the City of Charleston asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $10 million in mitigation funding for property buyouts but was denied.

In 2017: Hurricane Irma brought the worst tidal surge since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

In 2018: Hurricane Florence brought heavy rainfall to the state, causing significant damage in

Georgetown County, north of Charleston.

In 2019: Coastal South Carolina flooded a record 89 times. The City of Charleston

was found to underreport flood damages, failing to recognize some repetitive loss properties

and severe repetitive loss properties and thereby preventing homeowners from obtaining mitigation funding.

In 2020: Coastal South Carolina recorded its second-highest number of flooding events. FEMA announced that its investigation into the construction of 19 homes on James Island in the late 1980s had found “indications of fraud.” The builder had constructed the homes several feet below FEMA’s requirements but was granted permission to let the homeowners live there anyway.

In 2021: Hurricane Elsa flooded the streets of downtown Charleston once again.

The Folly of Mitigating a Constant Crisis

Kristopher Fowler bought his first house on James Island in 2013, thinking it would be a good investment. He had no idea that he had moved onto a severely flood-prone property, and it wasn’t long before the first high water came. His property flooded three times in the three years he lived there, and he would later discover that it had flooded five times before he moved in.

Fowler received money from the National Flood Insurance Program to restore his house after the first two floods, but he didn’t bother to submit a claim after the third because the repairs from the second still hadn’t been completed. He tried to obtain funding to elevate the structure, but Charleston County had no money for mitigations, which are efforts to reduce a property’s future flood risk.

The last thing Fowler wanted to do was pass the burdensome home onto someone else without letting them know what they were getting into, so he disclosed its flood history to potential buyers, even leaving a hole in one of the walls to expose underlying flood damage. He was considering letting his home go into foreclosure when someone bought it anyway.

While living there, Fowler received several flood insurance payouts in excess of $20,000, and previous owners had received more than $100,000, to rebuild the home after floods. He compares the payouts, which were just enough to fix the damages, to putting a Band-Aid over the problem. “If you keep putting money like that into a property without fixing the original cause of the problem,” he said, “then it’s just going to keep getting worse.”  

Every year, more and more people in coastal South Carolina find themselves in a similar situation — unable to obtain mitigation funding for their homes while living in fear of the next flood. Wealthier families may be able to pay out-of-pocket to elevate their homes, but that can cost well over $100,000, as in Fowler’s case. Without funding for buyouts, residents struggle to sell their homes and are then unable to move out of the floodplain.

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