HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Rainfall from Hurricane Florence flooded thousands of homes and left many residents without flood insurance scrambling for answers.
As Horry County looks to make changes and increase preparedness for the next storm, it plans to revise its flood maps.
Flood maps create zones throughout communities that show how at risk an area is for flooding. These zones determine if owners with mortgages need to buy flood insurance for their property. Currently, only land in the lowest zone, X, does not require flood insurance.
The maps also play a role in how and where future development can occur.
“You want to know what zone you’re in when you are building the house so that way you can calculate how much dirt you need to bring in or how high the house is going to have to be,” explained Berkley White with Classic Home Building.
Developers in Horry County are currently working with 2003 maps. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency proposed changes in 2015, the county has not accepted them yet.
“We have a couple of concerns when it comes to flood maps,” said Rob Clemons, former president of the Horry Georgetown Home Builders Association. “One of them is we don’t want to see an over-correction of flood maps either. Are they maybe having an overreaction and suggesting that we need to build houses much higher than they should be?”
The county and other developers argued FEMA’s proposed maps were not based on realistic data.
In 2016, Horry County appealed FEMA’s map and have gone back and forth ever since.
“From a level of planning, we definitely try to make sure if those rules are going to be changed that it’s changed for a good reason,” Clemons said. “You don’t want to see it done with anything other than upmost standards, knowing that we had proper data.”
But now, the county is considering a version of the 2015 maps, since Hurricane Florence levels were similar to those levels, said county spokesperson Kelly Moore.
The question officials considered three years ago is still one they are struggling with today - how extreme should standards be set?
Current maps are based on the level of risk if a 100-year flood occurred or flood levels that have a 1 in 100 chance of occurring on any given year.
It was estimated 18,000 existing homes would be impacted.
The reality of increasing the boundary of high-hazard zones means more homeowners would be required to purchase flood insurance. If their home falls in a hazard zone but the home is not built high enough, it is a labeled as a ‘nonconforming property,’which leads to higher premiums.
Businesses have already begun building and anticipating changing zones. Since FEMA’s proposed maps were released in 2015, many areas throughout the county fall in a limbo; the area is not in the current flood zone but is in the proposed one.
“When we are building, we will actually work with the customer, look to see what zone or what their flood zone is,” White said. “We’ll look at that and try to give them a cost of what that would be, so they can make a decision if they would like to raise the house so that when the maps are changed then they will be compliant.”
If land is not developed yet and is placed in a higher-hazard flood zone, developers need to build structures higher to conform to new levels.
“There is a negative effect not just on the building industry but also the developers and also realtors for example. You know they are trying to sell homes that are now more expensive,” White said.
Adam Cates, a senior adviser at Tradd Commercial Real Estate, echoed a negative impact on the market, specifically in closing a property sale deal.
“It kind of turns the board game on its face,” Cates said. “Unfortunately, they have to do it, and I understand why they have to.”
He said everyone is going to have to adjust.
A higher hazard zone means the height of buildings will have to rise to meet safety standards.
Mike Wooten, the president of DDC Engineers, said this increases the cost of the entire project.
“I know one project that we are working on right now, we are adding 3.5 fill to the entire site, which is very expensive, so that cost that the developer will have to pay to raise that site will be a part of the house lot combination cost,” Wooten said.
More regulations increase the cost of projects, a cost that eventually trickles down to the consumer.
“Just like insurance, just like everything else, those prices are going to trickle down into the value or the sales price of that home,” Wooten said.
By raising his project by 3.5 feet, Wooten said those eventual homes will increase by $5,000.
“But the beauty of that is that home is not going to flood, unless we get a storm greater than Florence,” Wooten said.
Thus, the question remains of what level of flooding should be set as the new norm?
Overestimating comes with a cost, but under anticipating future flooding could mean a repeat of residents caught without flood insurance.
“What this pattern is telling us is we may need to be prepared for more of these,” said Bo Ives, former urban planner and current IMAGINE 2040 committee member. “This is a once-off storm, or is it a sign of more storms to come? That’s something we need to be more confident about than we are now.”
Setting regulations too high can also have an impact on affordable housing.
Wooten said the county shouldn’t let a “freak storm” dictate how the future of the county is developed.
“If you design for the perfect storm, you wouldn’t be able to afford the development,” Ives said. “If you design an airport for Thanksgiving traffic, it would be empty the rest of the year, so you don’t really design for the worst day of the year.”
Cates said affordable housing is already a challenge as affordable options decrease.
Clemons explained if a community was suddenly added into a flood zone where homes averaged $200,000 then newer houses would cost significantly more, despite being the same model, because they would have to be built multiple feet higher. He estimates the cost of building can increase by up to 30 percent.
“In some cases, it can even be cost prohibited to build in those areas based on what the other home values are,” Clemons explained. “You have to look at the cost of your product, so if we’re looking at something that is going to cost more than the typical user can buy that’s a problem for the industry.”
For Clemons, it’s all about finding a balance between safe and affordability.
“From our perspective I would look at it and say to the county planners, ‘Come up with rules that will help prevent flooding issues on a reasonable level but without going over the top where it becomes just impossible to build a new development,’” Clemons said.
Ultimately, the decision lies with the experts who draw the maps and for county council to approve. Then it’s up to the homeowners to pay up and the rest of the industry to follow the new standards.
Horry County said it expects the new maps back around the end of December.
“Everyone is kind of nervously awaiting to see how all of this is going to settle,” Cates said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they roll the dice on it.”