‘It’s likely to happen again in our lifetime.’ Are Horry County’s flood maps out of date?

Drone video of flooding from Hurricane Florence in the Rosewood community

Intracoastal waterway flooding inundates dozens of homes in neighborhood as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise.
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Intracoastal waterway flooding inundates dozens of homes in neighborhood as floodwaters from Hurricane Florence rise.

At the onset of the flood from Hurricane Florence, Horry County officials told residents they should leave their homes if they flooded or nearly flooded in Hurricane Matthew in 2016, calling attention to an online GIS map of flood zones.

This surprised many homeowners, who did not have flood insurance and did not believe they lived in a neighborhood at risk of flooding. Accurate flood maps help homeowners make decisions about buying insurance and fleeing when a flood threatens.

Richard Sorkin, co-founder of Jupiter Intel, said politics and other factors can keep government-provided maps from being the most comprehensive flood maps available.

Jupiter works to create flood maps using the latest in cloud-computing technology to account for all factors that lead to flooding. The company has a team of experts, including a Nobel Prize winner, that works with governments and companies to provide the most up-to-date information on property risks.

Jupiter’s maps focus on how weather and climate change affect property, initially focusing on just flooding. They make maps for the immediate future and maps that look 50 years into the future. The long-term maps are updated four times a year.

Sorkin’s company is private and doesn’t not have the same political constraints in creating flood models.

“From our perspective it’s just the facts,” Sorkin said.

Politics of flooding

In recent history, many government officials did not account for slow-moving hurricanes like Matthew and Florence that bring unprecedented rains with them, Sorkin said.

Before Matthew hit in October 2016, FEMA warned thousands of Horry County residents that Bucksport, Socastee and North Conway were at risk of flooding when it released updated flood insurance rate flood maps in 2016.

At the time, Horry County Council members decided to appeal the map, claiming it said properties that never flooded in the past would in the future.

“We’re having a difficult time, from a common sense standpoint, of seeing that happen,” Assistant County Administrator Steve Gosnell said in the spring of 2016, according to The Sun News reports.

The intention of the appeal was to help people afford flood insurance or avoid unnecessarily being forced to buy it, according to the discussion at a Horry County Council committee meetings in February and May 2016. On the Horry County GIS flood maps, both the current flood zones and the proposed flood zones are included to help homeowners understand their risk.

The current and proposed maps are out of date, Sorkin said, compared to what could be made. He also said the maps do not fully take into account future changes in climate and land use, due in part to the political process restraining what FEMA can afford to do.

Jupiter has customers in the Carolinas, including land-developing companies looking to better understand and determine the risk of purchasing or developing a tract of land.

Changes in land use and development are among the factors that can lead to more flooding if done in risky areas, Sorkin said, and people are building in risky areas that might not be identified in a FEMA map.

Erin Pate, north coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League, said protecting natural wetlands is an important step to preventing flooding. Too much development can harm flood-preventing natural resources, she said.

Sorkin said a lot of local governments are buying wetlands or creating mitigation parks to help soak up flood waters.

In 2018, Horry County purchased wetlands near Carolina Forest to preserve them and create a mitigation bank. The decision has been criticized by some saying it was a waste of tax money. Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge said Tuesday the council does not get enough credit for all the benefits the land brings.

Pate said Horry County’s planning office has a done a commendable job with the Imagine 2040 plan and land-use map. The plan in its land-use descriptions discusses protecting scenic and conservation zones due to their flood-mitigation power.

“Many of these areas are either flood or wildfire prone, so development within and adjacent to these areas should take these hazards into consideration,” according to the plan.

If an area is deemed a scenic and conservation zone, it would take a recommendation from planning commission and approval from county council to build a housing development or business on the land.

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‘New normal’

In Hurricane Florence, Matthew flood levels became the momentary risk map of where water might reach. FEMA and past flood maps were important to many people’s decision to stay or leave. Horry County officials told folks that if they lived near recent flooding they should evacuate.

“For a lot of people, there will be a new normal,” Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster said Sept. 21 before the Waccamaw surpassed Matthew flood levels. ”That’s weighing heavy on me what that might be.”

Webster was speaking about the recovery process that was about to begin. And for many Horry homeowners, flood recovery is becoming normal. Updating the flood maps will potentially require people to pay more money to afford flood insurance. Mortgaged homes in high-risk flood zones often are required to have flood insurance.

Sorkin said Florence wasn’t that surprising given the trend of large, slow-moving storms hitting the United States. He said the Carolinas can expect more storms like this in the future, making the need for good flood-predicting information.

“In the context of very good science that says the probability of these events are going up and here’s why, then responsible leadership requires looking at the facts straight in the face,” he said.

For Pate, updating flood maps and giving people more information is among the steps local authorities should look to take to future flood prevention. She was happy to see Horry County Council taking a serious look at preparing the county for future floods.

At its Tuesday meeting, council approved a flood-resilience plan to start exploring what can be done to lessen the impact of another storm.

“It’s likely to happen again in our lifetime,” Assistant County Administrator Justin Powell said.