WMBF Investigates: Did poor planning lead to flooding in a Longs community?

WMBF Investigates: Did poor planning lead to flooding in a Longs community?

LONGS, SC (WMBF) - Residents in the Polo Farms neighborhood off Highway 905 in Longs lost everything in the flooding following Hurricane Florence.

As the Waccamaw River rose to historic heights, neighborhood streets transformed into rivers.

When the water receded, residents described an “eerie feeling” as homes were gutted and belongings stacked high down every street.

Some residents had owned their home for less than a year and were uninsured and unprepared for the possibility of flooding. Other homeowners faced flooding for a second time in less than three years.

More than two months after flooding that wiped out the neighborhood, residents are still rebuilding and seeking answers.

“A lot of us are on the consensus that this neighborhood should have never been built,” one resident said.

Polo Farm resident Brian Beckel shows a picture of his home on Alexis Drive during the floods following Hurricane Florence. Beckel's home flooded during Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence.
Polo Farm resident Brian Beckel shows a picture of his home on Alexis Drive during the floods following Hurricane Florence. Beckel's home flooded during Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence.

The development of Polo Farms began in the early 2000s, but its history of flooding stems long before that.

Ace Parker has lived in the area for more than 40 years. His family has owned land in the county since the 1830s, including the land Polo Farms sits on now.

Parker described the land as a low-lying area with pockets of wetlands and a history of flooding.

“Before those houses were built in there, I've seen it flood six to eight times,” he said. “Any time that creek water comes out of its banks the water would flood that area.”

Parker said they never thought the buyer was going to build on it, but when they found out about plans for development his family attended meetings with the county.

“We brought up the idea, that 'Hey these things are going to flood. We see this property flood,' and it fell on deaf ears basically,” Parker explained.

Parker said the county was aware the land flooded. He explained after the county didn’t heed their warning, his family put up a billboard with pictures of the flooding for future buyers to see.

“We were threatened with litigation by the developer to remove the sign and later the county came in and basically told us we didn't have a sign permit to have them up and they threatened to fine us as well,” Parker said.

He added they took the sign down and let “it fall where it may.”

Since then, numerous developers have been involved with the neighborhood.

Homes in the most recent phase of the development were sold in 2017.

“We just had this house built brand new last year, so we’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Polo Farms resident Wendy Lewis said of the recent flood.

In September, Lewis had over a foot of water inside her house and her family lost everything.

A look inside one Polo Farm home after feet of water entered the house. Many homeowners in the Longs neighborhood had to completely start over after Hurricane Florence.
A look inside one Polo Farm home after feet of water entered the house. Many homeowners in the Longs neighborhood had to completely start over after Hurricane Florence.

DDC Engineers president Mike Wooten has developed in the county for decades and said that area stood out as a bad place to build early on for him.

“We as a firm had an opportunity to take a look at doing that project when it first came up and at that time the county didn’t have countywide topography, but the planners in our office looked at it and said, ‘You know, that’s in a bad place. If the river ever comes up, it’s going to flood,’” Wooten said. “We walked away from it. Glad we did.”

But other developers didn’t walk away.

Brothers Land Properties, Southern Land Partners and Atkinson Developers were previously involved with the neighborhood.

A handful of homes from the first two phases of construction flooded after Hurricane Matthew and still development continued.

Wooten said he doesn’t think the developers had any idea of the potential for flooding.

“I would think it would be a pretty bad thing if they knew it was prone to flood and built there and developed it anyway, and then failed to tell people who were moving there. That’s pretty bad business,” Wooten said.

Creekside Custom Homes built houses beginning in 2016 for the third phase of the community.

Creekside owner Jamie McLain said he was aware some homes flooded after Matthew. He said he thought the flooding was a “once in a lifetime event.”

McLain said no flooding occurred while they built in the area and homes were built to elevations required by FEMA and county requirements.

Could flooding have been prevented?

“It’s one of the developments that’s the saddest because that could have been averted,” Bo Ives said.

Ives is a current Horry County IMAGINE 2040 committee member responsible for shaping the future of the county. He also is a former member of the county planning board of appeals.

He said at the time of Polo Farms development the risk for flooding was discussed by the county.

“There was a map that showed the flood potential for that and it was debated, and they were able to question that,” Ives said. “It’s unfortunate that those arguments succeeded because that area obviously did flood.”

Ives said nothing was done illegally, but the members involved in the project were able to make an argument for a different level of flooding risk.

Horry County did not respond to questions about this process.

These changes came after a 2003 study conducted by Earthworks, an engineering firm involved with the Polo Farms project.

Earthworks’ president Steven Strickland said the land was labeled an unnumbered A zone by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

However, Strickland said there were no elevations set for the area.

Earthworks completed a study on the potential flood risk from the nearby Simpson Creek using FEMA’s criteria of a 100-year flood. Strickland explained this data was submitted to and approved by FEMA and created revisions to the existing Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM).

FEMA issued numerous letters of map revisions that stated, “This document revises the affected National Flood Insurance Program Map to remove the subject property from the Special Flood Hazard Area; therefore, the federal mandatory flood insurance requirement does not apply.”

These letters reveal many properties were decreased to the lowest risk flood zone X.

Danon Lucas with FEMA explained zone X doesn’t mean risk doesn’t exist, the property just does not have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.

Lucas said various factors can remove an area from a Special Flood Hazard Area.

Zone X does not require homeowners to purchase flood insurance, whereas homes in zone A, owners would be required to purchase flood insurance.

You can search revisions to your home by searching your address on FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center.

Some residents in zone X said they feel blind-sided by the recent flooding.

“They never mentioned anything about it being flooded and even though they built it up they said it wasn’t in a flood zone, so I didn’t get flood insurance because if they would have told me it had flooded and it still wasn’t in a flood zone, I would have got flood insurance, just for safety sake, but that was never mentioned,” said Polo Farms resident Mary Oglesbee.

Oglesbee said it wasn’t until after she and other residents in the newest phase of the neighborhood moved in that they learned about the land’s history of flooding.

“We’ve learned that through our news Facebook feed with the neighbors on this side who said during Matthew all this land flooded, but of course you know they built it up but apparently not high enough,” she said. “If I would have known I probably would not have bought here.”

While many owners did not realize the risk for flooding, builders are only required to build to elevations required by the county.

Lucas said FEMA flood maps assist communities in making informed decisions.

Strickland said the way Polo Farms was developed did not cause it to flood.

He explained Earthworks’ study was based on the effect of rainfall on the Simpson Creek watershed. However, September’s flood was caused by rainfall in North Carolina that traveled down the Waccamaw River.

“The reason Polo Farms flooded was because you have a large event occurring in the Waccamaw River upstream that was so far beyond what the design storms are,” Stickland said. “It doesn’t matter what you do or how you develop when you have thirty inches of rain in the upper portion of the watershed, it’s going to come down stream.”

Proposed maps for the county place a large portion of the development back in a higher hazard flood zone, according to the county’s website. FEMA and Horry County are still currently working to accept these flood map changes.

Strickland said he doesn’t think the standard for creating flood zones should be increased.

“All of the flood probabilities and flood insurance rates are based on these maps so if you start changing the levels of flood studies maps, you are talking about doing something that is national. It would be a significant undertaking,” Strickland explained.

Resident Brian Beckel, however, said his home flooded during Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, yet it is still not placed in a higher hazard zone in the new maps.

“It doesn’t make you very comfortable knowing that you flooded twice, you’re that close to the flood zone, chances are if we get another major storm I’m going to flood again. I’m pretty confident it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when,” Beckel said.

Two months after flooding, the Polo Farms neighborhood is still working to rebuild their homes. Residents said only a handful of houses did not flood after Hurricane Florence. Some flooded for the second time in less than three years.
Two months after flooding, the Polo Farms neighborhood is still working to rebuild their homes. Residents said only a handful of houses did not flood after Hurricane Florence. Some flooded for the second time in less than three years.

Beckel fortunately bought flood insurance, but he said he doesn’t want to rebuild.

“It makes you feel beat down because there is no reason for it to happen the first time and after it did happen the county turned their back on us,” Beckel said. “They went ahead and did further development. They continue to do development knowing there are problem areas.”

Parker said he thinks recent flooding was unpreventable and a natural disaster, but he also thinks it’s time for action.

“I don't know if per regulations they did anything wrong, but I think common sense would tell you if an area floods once, it's going to do it again and they continue to allow development in these same areas,” Parker said.

Many are echoing these sentiments.

“If you fly over Horry County, it’s huge and there is a lot of undeveloped property in this county that will be available for development at one time or another,” Wooten said. “There’s too much good property to develop to go after a property that is prone to flooding or has bad soil.”

On Nov. 14, Horry County Council voted against the construction of a new development off of Highway 90.

The council is also discussing increased building codes to require future developments to be built a few feet higher.

Horry County’s public information office, stormwater department and planning department did not respond to or answer any questions concerning Polo Farms after weeks of repeated calls and emails from WMBF News.

WMBF has a request out for all the plans and meeting minutes concerning the development of Polo Farms.

Copyright 2018 WMBF. All rights reserved.