City officials on Wednesday piled onto a bus to tour parts of Columbia hard-hit from the historic flooding last fall.
The tour focused mainly on neighborhoods in the Gills Creek watershed east of downtown Columbia. The bus circled Lake Katherine and drove through flood-ravaged neighborhoods off South Beltline Boulevard. It also made a stop at the Columbia Canal, which the city has said would cost $100 million to repair after it was breached during the storm.
City Council members Leona Plaugh, Moe Baddourah, Sam Davis and Howard Duvall, plus city staff, saw homes in various states of recovery. Some that were heavily damaged had been elevated to meet floodplain code, while others were still under repair, with garbage dumpsters in the front yard.
Some homes remained gutted and abandoned.
“I think what struck me the most is that five months later, people’s lives are still in turmoil,” said Plaugh, who proposed the idea for the tour. “Some people are still struggling with what to do with their property. Families are divided. A lot of the houses are vacant. Some are living on second floors.
“It’s still a lot of just turmoil throughout the flood-impacted areas of the city.”
The tour happened as city officials weigh how to pursue and use federal flood recovery money.
Columbia recently learned it would receive $20 million for flood recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city soon will be given a 90-day deadline to submit a plan to HUD explaining how it will use the money.
And Columbia will be competing for an estimated $36 million in hazard mitigation grants made available for South Carolina through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Assistant City Manager Missy Gentry said the tour helped prepare officials for discussions about the best use of that money.
“I think the goal was to put a gauge on where we’re at today, five months after the storm, and sort of be better prepared to discuss where we’re going from here,” Gentry said.
Council members asked city staff on the tour about the possibility of voluntary property buyouts, and Gentry pointed out hard-hit areas where residents had asked the city about purchasing the land to convert it to green space.
Gentry said the city has started to identify properties eligible for a buyout, though she said she doesn’t yet know the number of eligible properties. The city in the next few weeks will begin sending letters to property owners asking whether they would be receptive to a buyout, she said.
FEMA is expected to provide $9 million for local governments in South Carolina to buy out flood-prone properties. The city alone plans to request $10 million from FEMA, knowing not all of it can be approved.
Plaugh said the tour would help council take a “comprehensive approach” to flood recovery.
“People now will know where Burwell Street is or where Downing Street would be,” she said. “People can relate to it now, as opposed to it being a dot on a map or a picture on a wall.”