There is a natural tendency to want to rebuild quickly after a disaster, and we are experiencing that after the historic flooding that swept through South Carolina last month. But the conflict between rebuilding quickly and rebuilding smart means that in some communities the risk of flooding will not be reduced, and those at risk will remain so for the next event.
Rebuilding smarter means working to reduce risk, building resilience into reconstruction to protect against the next flood. Unfortunately, our myopia about our own disaster risk is getting in the way of smart development and redevelopment after the floods. This short-sightedness will cost millions of dollars, with state and federal governments undoubtedly bearing most of the cost of infrastructure repair and subsidies to property owners.
For a moment, imagine what a smarter recovery would look like.
1) Recognize that floods are acts of people. Over-developed watersheds, channelization and the creation of scenic ponds for lakeside living altered the natural course of creeks and rivers in the region and constrained their ability to move within their floodplains during periods of high flow. Enabling those watersheds to function again within their natural boundaries will imply changes for neighbors downstream.
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Let facts, not ideology, dictate flood recovery decisions
2) Make room for the creeks and rivers. A resilient approach is to simply remove some of the development along the floodplain to make room for the creeks and rivers. This non-structural approach is being adopted in many flood-prone regions of the world. It is accomplished through buyouts of properties in and adjacent to the floodplains and their conversion into greenways that can flood during periods of high-water flow and be used as recreational areas during low-flow periods. We have seen this along the Congaree, and it’s now time to put this in place for smaller watersheds.
3) Question whether to patch dams, rebuild them stronger or not rebuild them at all. The failure to construct and maintain earthen dams adequately, including regular inspections, contributed to their collapse. If public funds are used for the reconstruction of privately owned dams, then the lakes behind them should be open for public use, which will necessitate some form of public access. Otherwise dam construction and reconstruction should be the responsibility of those who benefit — adjacent homeowners and developers, not state, municipal or county governments.
4) Increase flood insurance coverage. Flood insurance should be the norm, not the exception. With new designations of floodplains based on this event, more people are likely to be included in flood-prone areas, although not necessarily within the designed special flood hazard zone that mandates flood insurance. Further, there may be requirements for increasing base flood elevations as part of the new requirements for flood insurance. This could mean homeowners can no longer build on slab.
What Columbia can learn from Nashville’s 2010 flood
5) Get cities and counties more involved in promoting flood mitigation. Columbia and other cities in the region should promote the Community Rating System, which provides discounts on flood insurance premiums for residents in communities that adopt robust floodplain management. Myrtle Beach saves its residents up to 25 percent on their flood insurance premiums whereas in Richland County it is only 10 percent. The capital city is not even participating in the program.
South Carolina has demonstrated its resiliency in the wake of the flooding, but the recovery is a long, frustrating process with some easy fixes and some that are not so easy. Building back smarter should be our goal, and flood mitigation should be a central part of the recovery. The options for property owners and neighborhoods range from flood-proofing homes and making drainage improvements to elevating buildings and participating in buyouts. Our communities must make collective decisions about the best recovery trajectory, including mitigation options. If the goal is to ensure longer-term resiliency of our neighborhoods and residents, then there is no choice but to rebuild smarter.
Dr. Cutter directs the University of South Carolina’s Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.