Like many longtime residents of the Grand Strand, Ed Black often divides his life in Garden City into two time periods: before Hurricane Hugo and after.
The 1989 storm caused massive damage, destroying more than 60 homes in Garden City alone and killing 35 people in South Carolina. At the time, it was the most damaging hurricane on record. Black’s street, just off the ocean and backing up to an inlet, has been prone to flooding ever since. Black says the issue has to do with the drainage system on his street.
But now, a new threat might be making it even more vulnerable. Sea rise has the potential to jeopardize the place Black has called home for almost 60 years.
“We really don’t want to leave, it’s a family home,” he said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
Pawleys Island resident Robert Levine faces a similar predicament. Levine, who’s lived in the community since the ‘90s and visited for years before that, is one of the few full-time residents of Pawleys. He’s lucky, he says, because his house is on the creek side, separated from the high tides that sometimes surround his oceanfront neighbors by a narrow two-lane street.
Still, he knows that the place he calls his “little slice of heaven” is in many ways a risky investment.
“That’s what you put up with for the beauty of Pawleys Island,” he said.
Ryan Swain has a unique perspective on the ways that sea level rise already is impacting the Garden City community he calls home. As a native of the area, he’s seen the beach adapt for decades. As the general manager of Dunes Realty, which specializes in oceanfront property, he’s invested in how sea level rise could affect beachfront homes.
“We don’t sweat it too much because if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, obviously we’ll be a lot happier,” he said. “There’s not a lot we can do about it at this point.”
Along the South Strand, people like Levine, Black and Swain are right in the middle of the Grand Strand’s most vulnerable beaches. Their communities face the possibility of losing thousands of houses worth billions in the coming decades.
And it’s a threat that could figuratively and literally reshape much of Horry and Georgetown counties.
‘It’s really time to get started’
As residents grapple with the possible effects of sea level rise and how it could affect their daily lives, experts like Kirstin Dow, a professor of geography at the University of South Carolina, say that now is the time for local and state governments to start preparing in areas like the Grand Strand.
Climate change is already happening, she said, and will cause water levels in oceans and the other bodies of water they’re connected with to increase.
Dow works with municipalities to create substantive plans to combat sea level rise and mitigate its possible effects.
“It’s really time to get started,” she said. “It’s much less expensive to address it now than it is after the damage.”
Paying to plan for sea level rise will save coastal communities money down the line, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency estimates that every dollar spent to prepare for sea level rise will save $4 in the future by decreasing communities’ risk levels.
The cost of doing nothing could be disastrous for communities along the Grand Strand, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By 2045, chronic flooding could inundate over 3,000 homes along the coast and low-lying areas, the study estimates. Homes stretching from Little River to Pawleys Island and as far inland as Conway would be impacted. That’s about $1.4 billion in lost property value and over $11 million in lost property taxes.
By 2100, those numbers balloon to over 19,000 homes worth about $6.9 billion, according to the same study.
‘We’re all gonna have the same problem’
That’s a reality that vulnerable coastal communities like Pawleys Island face every day, according to town administrator Ryan Fabbri.
“We’d be ignorant to just pretend like it isn’t happening,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of luxury.”
Fabbri said that strict building regulations, beach renourishment and good drainage systems are some of the city’s best tools as of now, a similar approach to other Grand Strand municipalities.
Cities like Myrtle Beach build off of state regulations to determine where people can develop oceanfront land by adding onto setback lines, the landward boundary for building, according to city spokesman Mark Kruea.
“The city’s setback already is greater than the state requires,” he said. “We also strictly enforce flood zone regulations.”
North Myrtle Beach also follows the advice of larger agencies, according to city spokesperson Pat Dowling.
“When it comes to in-depth study of sea level rise and its impact on development in North Myrtle Beach, we tend to follow the advice and legislative actions of state and federal agencies,” he said, “which have the resources to accomplish large studies and implement them when feasible.”
Much of these regulations come from the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the part of state government that handles beach management and decides the statewide rules for oceanfront development.
“Our role is to provide data, technical assistance and potential resources to assist local governments in their planning efforts,” DHEC spokesperson Tommy Crosby said.
Even more inland communities like Conway are thinking about how sea level rise could create a domino effect of flooding into bodies of water like the Waccamaw River. Conway spokesperson Taylor Newell says the city bases many of its regulations on the flood levels it’s seen during major hurricanes.
“It’s something we have to continue to monitor,” she said.
Sea level rise is also on the minds of officials in Horry and Georgetown counties.
Georgetown County spokesperson Jackie Broach said the county doesn’t have any policies related to sea level rise, but that county officials have attended conferences to learn more about how to combat and plan for the issue.
Horry County spokesperson Kelly Moore says that programs like beach renourishment are vital to combating erosion and maintaining the area’s tourism economy. Moore added that the county bases its construction standards on those of the National Flood Insurance Program and works with both municipalities and conservation organizations on related issues.
“These strategies first and foremost help Horry County address flooding challenges today,” she said of the county’s approach, “while also helping us think more forwardly about the challenges of sea level rise into the future.”
Fabbri says “group think” among local governments is critical to an effective plan.
“We’re all going to have the same problem. We all have the same problem,” he said, “and it’s just going to get worse over time.”
‘You have to think’
Levine says that, at least for now, he thinks area governments are doing what they can to keep up with the threat of sea level rise.
“I don’t know if they’re long-term solutions,” he said, “but they’re good short-term solutions.”
In addition to building regulations and beach renourishments, cities also need to think about how sea level rise could reshape their landscapes when planning future development, Dow said.
“You have to think about how long you want something to last in a location,” she said.
Beach renourishment and drainage improvements are good moves for now, Dow said, but they won’t be feasible forever. Renourishment is expensive and sand is a limited resource, she explained. In very low-lying areas, even improved drainage won’t be able to keep up with projected rates of sea rise.
Quality zoning and building codes are a step int the right direction, Dow said. They’re especially useful when they encourage individuals to be proactive.
Still, others like Swain want to make sure that regulations are not “artificially harsh,” especially when they’re developed right after a tropical system impacts the beaches. In his experience, he’s seen parts of Garden City Beach expand even as other parts have eroded.
“If you measure right after a big storm, which is when everybody wants to do because that’s when everybody panics about it, you don’t notice that for the last 20 years, it’s been building up,” he said “And that’s the natural cycle.”
‘How do we break it down to a local level?’
Another critical component of successfully combating sea level rise is educating the public, according to Albert George, director of conservation for the South Carolina Aquarium.
George’s team has traveled the state hosting town halls to hear firsthand how sea level rise already is changing the landscape. In partnership with South Carolina Educational Television and the Medical University of South Carolina, they’ve now developed a series of documentaries focused on different parts of the coast. They’ll return to the same places they had town halls to screen the films.
The initiative is meant to localize the issue for coastal residents and help bridge political divides over the issue of climate change.
“How do we bring this conversation that has mostly been an elite policy conversation out of the ether?” he said. “How do we break it down to a local level?”
Dow agrees that now is the time to get educated.
“The most extreme events are further out, but that’s another reason to focus on planning,” she said.
Education is critical to the preservation of coastal communities in South Carolina, George said.
“We need to make people aware of these changes so that hopefully they won’t make the mistake of putting themselves or their families in harm’s way just by not knowing,” he said.
‘Influences our thinking about hurricanes’
The same forces that drive sea level rise have the potential to impact hurricanes.
Climate change doesn’t seem to increase the number of hurricanes, Dow said, but it will lead to hurricanes that linger over an area for longer, dumping flooding rains.
“Climate change does influence our thinking about hurricanes,” she said.
Higher sea levels could mean higher storm surges during hurricanes and tropical storms, according to George. He explained that, for example, Hurricane Hugo produced 12-and-a-half feet of storm surge along the South Carolina coast. At the current rate of sea level rise, a similar storm could produce a storm surge as high as 19 or 20 feet.
Coupled with sea level rise, smaller storms that would often be brushed off by coastal residents could produce serious flooding, George said.
‘People that are here are gonna stay’
But it’s not something Levine spends time getting worked up about right now.
“I’m not worried about it,” he said, “whether my grandchildren worry about it will be a different thing.”
Regardless of what happens, residents like Black say people who call the area home are staying put.
“I don’t see it taking people off the beach,” he said. “People that are here are gonna stay.”
And Swain believes that the tourists that drive much of the area’s economy will keep flocking to the beaches so long as there’s a beach to come to.
“People will still want to go to the beach, and we’ll keep trying to make them happy as long as they can come here,” he said. “Hopefully the beach won’t be in Columbia.”