‘The bear got us:’ Could proposed flood zones have saved homes from Florence?

‘The bear got us’: Could proposed flood zones have saved homes from Florence?

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Hurricane Florence and the flooding that followed damaged more than 1,500 properties in Horry County.

WMBF Investigates obtained a list of all the properties, mapped them and compared them to their current flood zone and what flood zone they could have been in if 2015 Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps had been adopted.

In speaking with flood victims and officials to explore if the devastation Florence left behind could have been reduced and by diving into how aging flood maps played a role, some key findings came to light:

  • In 2015, FEMA proposed new flood zones for Horry County that would have added 18,000 more properties to a high-risk zone but the county disputed them, arguing inaccurate calculations.
  • Currently, many properties in the county rely on 2003 maps to determine their level of risk and insurance rates.
  • Close to half of the properties that reported flood damage after Florence fell in zone X, an area considered at low-risk where homeowners are not required to purchase flood insurance.
  • More than 75 percent of the properties that flooded in the low-risk zone would have been in a higher zone when Florence hit if the 2015 FEMA maps had been adopted.

On the above map, green represents the properties that flooded that are currently in a high-risk flood zone. The properties in red are currently in a low-risk flood zone. The yellow markers indicate what properties should have been added to a higher-risk zone, based on the 2015 proposed flood maps.

Picking up the Pieces

Luther Moore rests after cleaning up his yard in Bucksport one year after flood waters damaged his property.
Luther Moore rests after cleaning up his yard in Bucksport one year after flood waters damaged his property. (Source: Samantha Kummerer)

Luther Moore lost his home first and then his wife. His property in Bucksport still sits unlivable, one year after Hurricane Florence.

“It’s got so much mold on it. It stinks in there. I stayed in there one time for a week and I went to the doctor. That stuff got in my system,” he said while raking his yard to create some semblance of order.

His house is in a low-risk flood zone and he didn’t have flood insurance.

“The house is alright but it needs a lot of work done and I’m just waiting on somebody to come and try to help me,” Moore said.

He’s got a positive attitude but he’s only human.

“It’s a lot of work and a lot of money, but through it all God’s going to bring me through,” he said. “They say you ain’t supposed to get tired of waiting but I am. I’d love to be in my own place.”

Moore’s property is one of more than a dozen in the Bucksport area that should be added to a high-risk flood zone when new maps are adopted. The lag in updates didn’t save him from losing his belongings.

Across the Intracoastal Waterway, Connie Parrish is living out a similar reality. Her home in Socastee flooded twice in the last few years.

“We lost all of our furniture. We lost all of our clothes. I lost everything,” she said, remembering the sight after Florence. “The washer was turned upside down and it was in the other room. It actually floated to another room, their refrigerators turned upside down.”

Her family didn’t have flood insurance and didn’t qualify for a Small Business Administration loan, an alternative many without insurance used to afford to repair their home.

Connie Parrish reflects on life one year after Florence flooded her Socastee home for the second time.
Connie Parrish reflects on life one year after Florence flooded her Socastee home for the second time. (Source: Samantha Kummerer)

“It was just heartbreaking,” Parrish said. “I cried and cried and cried, and I just couldn't believe it, you know? It took me a long time to even go back in the house. I didn't want to see it.”

Instead, she’s lived the past few months in a warehouse. Her house still holds the ruined belongings and is waiting to be torn down.

“I wish that I had the money to move away from here. I just would leave. I would leave in a heartbeat. But now that's not really an option,” Parrish said.

Hundreds of homes in the Socastee area have been flooded multiple time and are not in a high-risk flood zone. Many would have been added to a high-risk zone if the county’s flood maps were updated back in 2015.

Many homes in Socastee will be added to a higher risk zone under proposed FEMA map changes. The current zones are featured on the left.
Many homes in Socastee will be added to a higher risk zone under proposed FEMA map changes. The current zones are featured on the left. (Source: WMBF)

“You've had people that had damage after damage after damage. How can you go to somebody that’s had multiple floodings, it's like, ‘Oh well, you're not in a flood zone?’ It just … that blows my mind,” said Amanda Vibbert, an insurance broker at Moore and Associates.

She said she thinks more people would have been better prepared if maps from years ago had been adopted.

“Cause the worst thing is, ‘I didn't know;’ I was told it was not a flood zone. I was told it would never flood.’ Going on misinformation is what caught a lot of people off guard,” said Vibbert.

Candace Johnson knew her home flooded and purchased flood insurance before Hurricane Florence, but she had no idea how much she would need it.

“Coming back in and seeing all of it. I mean complete devastation,” Johnson said. “I had hardwood floors, they had buckled and they looked like a wave and you saw the water line so where we’re standing up now it would have come up to my mid-thigh.”

A year after rain filled her Conway home, Johnson is just moving back in.

“If I did not have flood insurance, I guarantee I would have to tear it down,” she said.

While she’s counting her blessings, the neighborhood she’s known for decades is vanishing as homes are torn down.

“I’m fortunate that I had flood insurance and was able to come back home but a lot of people didn't,” Johnson said.

Conway resident Candace Johnson lost her home to flooding after Florence in September 2018. She was able to rebuild and move back in because she purchased flood insurance.
Conway resident Candace Johnson lost her home to flooding after Florence in September 2018. She was able to rebuild and move back in because she purchased flood insurance. (Source: Candace Johnson)

The consequence of operating on aging maps

FEMA creates flood maps for the entire county. Properties are placed in different zones based on how at-risk they are for flooding during a 100-year flood, which is a flood that has a one out of 100 chance of occurring in any given year.

The maps also determine if homeowners with a mortgage need to buy flood insurance. They are often the first and sometimes only source homeowners base their education of risk and insurance decision on.

Banks do not require homes in the lowest zone, X, to purchase insurance.

The flood zones throughout Horry County are based on maps that were created in the early 2000s. FEMA released new maps for the area in 2015, but Horry County officials appealed the proposal and the maps were never adopted.

“The people who did the model for FEMA did not consider the geography or the hydrology of our area and there were a lot of very basic errors that we felt did not adequately model our watershed,” said Steve Strickland, president of the consulting firm Earthworks.

Four years ago, Strickland worked with Horry County to identify problems with how FEMA predicted flooding around the Pee Dee River and with the increased elevations set along the Intracoastal Waterway.

A spokesperson for Horry County said the county hired a consultant to create new models that showed ‘that our concerns were justified.’

Ensuring the maps show an accurate level of risk is important because of the effect the zones have on homeowners’ finances.

In 2015, 18,000 new homes would have moved from a low-risk to a high-risk zone, according to Horry County. Strickland said if the FEMA maps went into effect some property owners would have paid five to 10 times more for flood insurance.

“Which makes a big impact to people who have moved down here and retired and have their social security, their pensions or their retirement income, and all of a sudden they're getting priced out of their house because they can't afford the flood insurance,” he said.

Vibbert said if a property is at ground level and it is added to a higher-risk zone, there is going to be a big leap in the insurance rate. The flood history of a property also has an effect.

She estimates residents in Rosewood could see a $3,000 to $5,000 increase for flood insurance.

“Not only are they paying a higher rate because they have to pay insurance now, they also are paying a higher rate because their house is still at the ground level and they're still paying a higher rate than before because they weren't told three years ago and then it's flooded,” Vibbert said, breaking down the reality some homeowners might face if the county changes flood maps.

While action would have come with a financial cost to some, now years later, inaction has also taken a financial toll on residents like Larry Wallace.

Wallace moved to Polo Farms 13 years ago and he doesn’t remember ever having a conversation about flood insurance at the time.

Currently, only a handful of properties in the Longs community are considered in a high-risk zone. Last September, Wallace joined every neighbor in gutting his house after flooding transformed the neighborhood streets into rivers.

Larry Wallace had to gut his home in Polo Farms after water destroyed everything inside.
Larry Wallace had to gut his home in Polo Farms after water destroyed everything inside. (Source: Larry Wallace)

“That was a big shock because when I left here, I actually thought I would come back and find three to four inches of water in the house but I came back and found 27 inches in every room,” Wallace remembered. “The refrigerator upside down, cabinets upside down, the couch had already started with mold.”

His families’ belonging joined the neighbors’ on the curb.

“We took four foot out of every room in the house, threw everything away and started over and rebuilt it,” he said.

Wallace didn’t have flood insurance. He didn’t know, under the proposed FEMA maps, his property was added to a high-risk zone.

“If they would have come back and told me that I went from an X to an AE, I would have bought flood insurance, sure. Because there’s a reason for that, a logical assumption,” he said.

Instead, Wallace rebuilt using his savings and donations.

“It just took everything we had,” Wallace said. “There’s an old saying, ‘Sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.’ Well the bear got us the last time. We got to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

A majority of the homes in Polo Farms are part of the more than 500 properties that flooded and were predicted to be at high-risk for flooding in the 2015 FEMA maps.

A majority of the Polo Farms community in Longs, SC will be added to a high-risk zone for flooding based on proposed map changes (right).
A majority of the Polo Farms community in Longs, SC will be added to a high-risk zone for flooding based on proposed map changes (right). (Source: WMBF)

”A lot of the people were caught off guard because they didn't know,” Vibbert said.

This information suggests that although Florence caused extreme flooding, residents could have been better aware of their risk and have less financial burden in the aftermath if the proposed maps had been adopted before 2018.

When WMBF pressed officials on if this statistic is a problem, many stood their ground on blaming flood damage on the severity of Florence.

“When you throw a leaf off the bridge and it flows towards Loris, the only thing you can do is get your Bible and get on your knees because that’s the only help you can get,” Horry County Councilman Danny Hardee said.

Fellow councilman Paul Prince said he doesn’t remember reviewing the maps at the time. He added there are many situations where if you could predict the future, you would get everything straight.

“I know we can’t back up time but maybe the full council could have gutted the whole thing more. We could have done better I assumed,” Prince said.

Hardee said it would be good to get the maps updated to help homeowners become aware of their actual risk, but said residents can go online and look at the current maps.

“When you’re dealing with FEMA and the federal government, there’s no hurry. You’re kind of on their schedule,” Hardee said.

Councilman Gary Loftus called the county’s position a ‘rock in a hard place’ and explained the county can only make suggestions and give FEMA data.

Councilmembers Orton Bellamy and Cam Crawford, whose districts contain many of the homes that should have increased in risk level, never returned WMBF’s calls.

It’s not just Horry County

Almost half of the properties that reported flood damage after Hurricane Florence - 45 percent - were in a low-risk flood zone.

Neither Vibbert or Stickland were surprised by this finding. Florence brought record rainfall to the county and inevitably flooded places a typical storm never reached due to the sheer amount of water.

But for Vibbert, flooding in a low-risk zone isn’t new.

“I followed the trend and done last year before we had Florence and all up and down the East Coast and then Houston the year prior, with all the increased construction, the X-zone is out flooding the high-risk zones," she said.

Hurricane Harvey damaged more than 200,000 homes. Data revealed 75 percent of the homes were outside the 100-year floodplain.

FEMA is supposed to revise floodplains every five years, but the accuracy of the agency’s map has been a hot topic across the county in recent years.

The agency has been critiqued for using outdated and inaccurate data that leaves homeowners paying thousands.

The Department of Homeland Security audited the agency in 2017 to determine the accuracy of the maps. The department’s report found less than half of FEMA’s map accurately represented flood risks.

“FEMA needs to improve its management and oversight of flood mapping projects to achieve or reassess its program goals and ensure the production of accurate and timely flood maps…… without accurate floodplain identification and mapping processes, management, and oversight, FEMA cannot provide members of the public with a reliable rendering of their true flood vulnerability or ensure that NFIP rates reflect the real risk of flooding,” the report stated.

Part of the problem is FEMA is tens of billions of dollars in debt and remapping areas is a costly and timely task.

These maps make the difference between thousands of dollars for an average homeowner and provide a base for communities to make informed decisions, so their accuracy is important but in too many communities, like Horry County, a lag in adoption of new maps is having an effect.

“These pressures are not just on the coast, they’re not just on the rivers, it’s the whole nation and it’s very expensive,” said Dr. Paul Gayes, executive director of the Coastal Carolina Center for Marine and Wetlands Studies. “So not doing something is expensive and doing something is expensive. We need to make good decisions on how to best manage that in the future.”

Determining risk in a changing environment

Currently, FEMA uses measures based on what is called a 100-year flood. However, Horry County has experienced multiple 100-year floods over the past few years. The question becomes at what point is the yardstick increased to measure and define a reasonable level of risk.

“This is going to be a very big topic in the future, the idea of risk,” said Gayes. “One of the concerns for that basically is that it is all based on past behavior of the system and our system is really not behaving how it has in the past.”

Since FEMA sets the 100-year standard for the entire nation, it’s not a change local officials can make.

Strickland said politicians and policymakers need to be the ones determining if change is needed.

“When you start looking at adjusting the risk level on these maps, you start looking at the economic effects of how is that going to apply,” Stickland said.

He said adding more homes to the zone that requires insurance increases the funding for the National Flood Insurance Program and home values, but on the flip side if zones are drastically changed where people are already living in a ground-level house, they won’t be able to afford to live there.

Gayes explained, from a scientific perspective, using new technology to create the most accurate picture of risk, but people need to make the ultimate decisions of what to do with that information.

“Society still has to make decisions on what to do with risk because it’s a reasonable thing to do or not to do in terms of where we might develop and how we might manage different landforms. That’s a larger public discussion,” he said.

Vibbert said she thinks while the county and country await changes in measuring risk, better education can be spread about the risk for flooding.

She said X-Zone gives homeowners a false sense of security.

“I really think that consumers need to understand that when they are in a flood zone, regardless if it's high risk or not, just to have that mindset my property is in a flood zone,” she said.

Where we are at now

Horry County spokesperson Kelly Moore said FEMA agreed to use a different model methodology.

Initially, the county expected to see updated maps in January 2019. That deadline got pushed back and the county just received the latest version in 2019.

The latest proposed maps have 5,000 fewer properties in a high-risk zone than the 2015 proposed maps.

The next step in the process is to have a community coordination meeting and a 90-day appeal period. From there, FEMA has no time limit on reviewing the appeals.

County officials expect the process to take anywhere from six months to a year before anything becomes official.

Click here to check what zone your property currently is in and what zone it might fall in.

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