Extreme flooding reveal South Carolina’s lack of flood insurance and aging flood maps

Extreme flooding reveal South Carolina’s lack of flood insurance and aging flood maps

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Only around nine percent of South Carolina homes are covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, meaning that many of those affected by Hurricane Florence may not be protected.

NFIP is a federally funded program that began in the 1960's to provide relief to flood victims.

As of 2017, Horry and Charleston County reported the largest percent of insured properties, the Insurance Information Institute reported.

Counties away from the coast report some of the lowest levels of uninsured owners. Only 1 percent of Florence and Dillon County owners have flood insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute data.

The consequence of this large uninsured population is becoming more severe with the extreme flooding in recent years.

South Carolina has suffered $7 billion in damages from flood and hurricane over the last 25 years, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

"Everyone thinks flood insurance they think coastal tidal surge, but what they forget is if it can rain, it can flood," said Amanda Vibbert, an insurance broker at Moores and Associates.

Vibbert said after Hurricane Matthew, a lot of people started to realize they were more at risk than they thought, and she expects that realization to happen again after Hurricane Florence.

The data on insured properties does not account for the property owners who use private insurance companies for flood insurance.

Vibbert explained in recent years, the private sector is increasing in popularity. She said while the option often costs more, it covers up to more than the federal program.

One of the reasons why the uninsured population is so high is because of the flood hazard maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

The maps provide a way for builders and homeowners to evaluate their level of risk based on flooding that occurs from a one-hundred-year flood, or flood levels that have a 1 in 100 chance of occurring on any given year.

DNR reported in 2002 more than 75 communities throughout the state had not been mapped.

Property owners who fall in the two at-risk sections are usually required to purchase flood insurance when they get a mortgage. This creates a misconception for people about where flood damage is possible.

"We've come across a lot of people who say I'm not in a flood zone, I didn't know I could flood. I've lived here for 10, 20 years, I didn't know I could flood," said Vibbert. "What a lot of consumers are not taking into account is the construction for new houses, the road construction, and expanding roads change the water flow dramatically."

Vibbert explained that some areas that were not considered high-risk on the flood map years ago may now be more at risk because of development.

"If you take the dirt away, the water has to go somewhere," she explained. "You have no dirt to soak it up so it's going to go bigger, it's going to go wider."

In recent years, more of the properties in the preferred zone where lenders do not require insurance, are experiencing damage. Vibbert said before Florence, nearly 33 percent of damages reported was from this area and she expects that percentage to be even higher now.

"It's the one zone that everybody thinks they aren't in a flood zone. It's the one zone that accounts for almost half of all the flood damage in the past few years," Vibbert explained.

In Horry County, the current flood map is from 2003, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. An updated version was proposed in 2015, but it remains at the preliminary phase.

Steven Strickland with the engineering firm, Earthworks Group Inc. explained the revisions were not based on realistic conditions at the local level. The group filed an appeal against the revisions and found the model did not take into account local conditions.

He explained the model significantly increase flood levels in portions that were not realistic.

"We want to make sure of the flood zones maps are changing that the basis of the model that they are using is technologically sound and reflects the actual risk," Strickland said.

If the updated FEMA map were to be put in place thousands of Horry County properties would be placed in a higher-risk zone, requiring flood insurance possibly at higher rates.

"To go from a $300 a year flood insurance payment to go to a $4,000 or $5,000 a year flood insurance payment is devastating," Strickland said.

Two years later, Strickland said Horry County is continuing to negotiate the issue of map revision.

This limbo is affecting development.

Strickland's clients are struggling to develop land that would fall in high-risk flood zones if the updated maps are approved.

"They are having more difficulty finding home builders who want to go in these areas because of the uncertainty. I have one that has been pushed off for two years," he explained.

On the other hand, those thousands of homeowners who would have to pay more in flood insurance are benefiting from the delay.

Strickland said he believes the maps should be updated but need to be based on a realistic model. For him, using extreme flooding events is not the answer.

"The crux of the flood mapping issue is we have a defined risk level and because of all of the houses and developments and projects based on that risk. It needs to maintain consistency," he said. "Changing the map to reflect a more extreme event is going to result in increased cost for everyone but not increased benefit for everyone."

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