40,000 Upstate SC homes may be at risk of flooding, new study finds
August 10th, 2020
By Mike Ellis, Greenville News
There are more than 8,700 homes in the Upstate at risk of flooding, according to the standard of flood maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But a new non-profit study by First Foundation found there are as many as 40,000 homes in the Upstate that are at risk of flooding. Their study looks at inland flooding risks including recent weather mapping.
It will only continue to get worse, according to both forecasts as well as a wide-ranging study done by the governor's office late last year.
Flooding is increasingly affecting Upstate residents, who often lag their coastal counterparts in paying attention to flood risks.
Development drives risk
Bob Heath is one of the few people in the Upstate with flood insurance, he says it's the only way he could continue to live in their northern Pickens County neighborhood of Quail Haven.
One of his neighbors, Gwen Abee, has been fighting the floods for years, she hopes people can learn from her.
When it rains, in all but the smallest of trickles, her lawn floods.
Her husband, who died in June, used an electric wheelchair and there is a ramp outside their brick ranch home in northern Pickens County.
The water comes up to the ramp, filling her sloped driveway.
Several times in the 40 years she's lived here, they've had to get help getting out. Electric wheelchairs can't work in floods.
The constant flooding has eroded the ground around her house, exposing her foundation.
And it's not just Abee.
Her whole neighborhood, Quail Haven, is prone to flooding.
One neighbor has stacks of sandbags laid out year-round, like bulwarks on a battlefield.
The water has never come into Heath's home but it has come close, a 2005 storm was the closest call.
He has spent tens of thousands of dollars, however, in work under his house and in his lawn to avoid mold and prevent flooding.
If Pickens County had not bought and demolished, several homes next door to him years ago to have bare land for water to fill, his house may be in greater danger, Heath said.
Even with the new land for water, when it rains these days Heath and his wife sometimes take a drive, they need to get away from worrying and watching the water rise.
Their neighborhood is an outlier, it's the by far the most flood-prone neighborhood in Pickens County, according to county officials, but it's also a bellwether for the rest of the Upstate.
It's an older neighborhood, Heath bought new in 1974.
As neighborhoods age and more are built, every neighborhood's flood risk goes up.
Unprecedented Upstate flooding
There has been unprecedented flooding in the Upstate in recent years, with two federally-declared flooding disasters this year, causing $5 million in damage in the one that has been paid out and endangering lives in both February and April storms.
"What you have to understand is that on the coast, it floods and the water recedes," said Pat Webb, an Easley city council member and former floodplain coordinator for Greenville County.
"In the Upstate, our rivers and streams get very fast and come up. It could knock your house off your foundation instead of flooding it," she said.
The inland risk
The Upstate of South Carolina is in one of three areas of the country with increased rain in the last few years, according to the First Foundation map.
In both February and May this year, the Greenville area nearly set a record monthly rainfall total, both times setting the second-highest monthly totals out of more than 130 years of data. Three days this year have broken daily records.
The Greenville area should get around 50.8 inches of rainfall each year, according to climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which covers 1981 to 2010.
Greenville has nearly reached its annual rainfall expectations with 49.5 inches, and that is before August and hurricane season rainfalls.
Floods are the most common and costly natural disaster in the U.S. South Carolina is no exception.
The coastline of South Carolina gets more attention for flooding but significant inland risks tend to be completely ignored this far from the coast, said Megan Chase, of Upstate Forever, who contributed to the report.
In North Myrtle Beach, there are an average of 1.7 flood insurance policies per household. In Greer, it's about 1.8 for every 1,000 homes.
Only 19 homes in Greer have flood insurance and yet there are 40 homes that have a 20 percent risk of a flood this year and thousands with significant risk over a 30-year mortgage, according to the FloodFactor data.
That gap leaves many in the Upstate exposed to expensive floods.
The average flood claim in South Carolina has jumped 65 percent in the last decade, it's now $20,000, according to data sent to The Greenville News from QuoteWizard, a flood insurance service. A yearly policy costs an average of $672 in the state, according to QuoteWizard.
Designing a better system
The roads and neighborhoods today are designed with an understanding of the environment that is 50 years old, said Chase. "We're only required to design for the 25-year flood, private roads in subdivisions for a 10-year flood. But we're seeing these events more and more frequent, definitely not at the frequency they’re designed for."
The risk and the costs in the Upstate are only now starting to be noticed and FEMA flood risk maps, which show about 8,700 Upstate homes are at risk, are a false comfort, Chase said.
That's because they don't account for changes in weather, which affect inland areas most of all, she said. The maps do a good job of accounting for coastal risk, she said.
"There are people who call and say 'I've lived here since the '70s, '80s, 90s, it's never flooded before, now it's starting to flood,'" said Michael Corley, an Upstate attorney for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. "I get that call quite a bit."
There are catastrophic examples but the more common issue with flooding is smaller but still often costing homeowners tens of thousands of dollars.
Home shoppers look at cabinets and trim details but many, especially in the Upstate, do not look at the land around them and how floods will affect their homes, said Webb, the Easley council member and former floodplain coordinator.
Clarinda Hollis has lived in the Greenville neighborhood at Del Norte, near Eastside High School, for a half-century. She cultivates her front yard with care, benches, gardens, towering oaks and an unusually large mailbox.
When it rains, there is water up to her knees at her mailbox. She takes off her shoes and walks to get her mail.
It wasn't like that years ago, in the past few years it has gotten bad, Hollis said.
Her house has never been in any danger as far as she can tell but the water erosion recently led her to spend tens of thousands of dollars to add soil and new grass to her large yard.
"It's just not something everyone can afford to do," Hollis said.
Increased flooding in the Upstate is almost certain
Abee's lawn, and her hundreds of neighbors in the meantime brace for rains.
Spending more time and money on proper water drainage is the only real solution to the flood risk, which will save money in the long run, said Ken Roper, Pickens County administrator.
That means governments need to continue to pay attention to stormwater approvals, increase their maintenance of existing runoff systems and it also means homeowners need to consider flood patterns when they make improvements in their backyards and front yards, he said.
His office gets calls from Quail Haven residents in every rainstorm.
There are early-year rains, there are April showers, there are hurricane effect rains and fall storms.
Some neighbors have been forced out, others put up walls of sandbags. The county has bought and demolished several homes in the lowest areas to make drainage, they've put in pipes and culverts and in years past put up curbs to direct water down the road instead of through lawns.
It helps, a bit.
But Abee said it gets worse every year.
She's watching for hurricane effects now. No longer worried about her husband's electric wheelchair but now with more time to worry about what it means for her house.