Environment

SC built 1,200 houses in flood-prone coastal areas. And sea levels keep rising.

Waves lash a seawall at Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach. The effects of Hurricane Florence hit the area the morning of Friday, September 14, 2018.
Waves lash a seawall at Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach. The effects of Hurricane Florence hit the area the morning of Friday, September 14, 2018. jlee@thesunnews.com

Despite rising seas and increasing storm threats, South Carolina residents have built more than 1,200 homes since 2010 in areas of the coast that are forecast to flood more often in coming decades, a new study says.

Most of the new homes, valued at $1.3 billion, were clustered in Charleston County, the historic but increasingly storm soaked community that has attracted hordes of new residents in recent years. The city of Charleston already is dealing with floods that occur on sunny days because of rising sea levels.

But Charleston and South Carolina aren’t alone in seeing new construction in areas expected to flood more often, says the study by a climate science group and a national real estate corporation’s research division.

Nationally, nearly 20,000 homes have been built since 2010 in coastal areas that will become increasingly prone to flooding by the middle of the century, according to Climate Central and Zillow’s report. In North Carolina, 1,910 homes have been built since 2010 that face increased flood risks in the future, the report said. Both Carolinas rank in the top 10 in new home construction in high-risk areas.

The issue should be of concern to people who live on the coast or are thinking of moving there: lives will be threatened by higher water, and property values of the new houses will suffer because of the threat of flooding, according to Climate Central and Zillow.

At the same time, taxpayers from across the country are potentially on the hook to bail out property owners if a major storm destroys the new houses.

“This research suggests that the impact of climate change on the lives and pocketbooks of homeowners is closer than you think,’’ Skylar Olsen, Zillow’s economic research director said in a news release this week.

In the past four years, the Carolinas have been pounded by a succession of fall hurricanes and storms that flooded homes and forced people to higher ground.

Officials with both groups said long-term flood risks could be reduced if the nation takes aggressive action to address climate change. But Climate Central chief executive Ben Strauss said it would be more difficult to stop increased flooding by 2050. Climate change already is affecting the landscape and it will take time to slow down its effects, he said.

“If we transition to a much cleaner running economy, we can reduce this threat,’’ Strauss said. “But the biggest reduction will be for the second half of this century. Sadly, it is not going to make a huge difference by mid century.’’

The study, which relied on federal climate data, examined development in places where flood zones are expected to grow wider because of sea level rise. The 1,216 homes built since 2010 in South Carolina will have least a 10% chance of flooding annually before the year 2050, the report said. That flood zone will be bigger by 2050, researchers said.

South Carolina’s coast, anchored by historic Charleston and tourism hot spots Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island, is among the fastest growing areas of the state. But it also faces some of the biggest threats from climate change. Some estimates show that sea level is rising by an inch every two years.

Research shows that 761 homes have gone up in Charleston County since 2010 in areas where flooding threats are expected to worsen because of climate change, with Mount Pleasant and the city of Charleston accounting for the bulk of that, the report said.

In Beaufort County, home to Hilton Head Island, researchers found that 229 homes had been erected in areas where flooding will worsen by 2050. In Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, 62 homes were built since 2010 in areas that will experience worse flooding in the next 30 years, researchers said.

Homes in areas with increasing flood threats include those on beaches, rivers and marshes, according to Climate Central.

Jason Crowley, who tracks flooding and coastal development for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said local governments need tighter controls on development in flood-threatened areas, but they sometimes are hesitant to take those steps because of the threats of lawsuits by irate property owners.

“All of this is not surprising and it is unfortunate to see,’’ he said of the Climate Central-Zillow report.

Charleston residents talk about flooding after Hurricane Irma

One of the main ways to help blunt the impacts of climate change over the long-term is to limit greenhouse gas pollution that traps heat in the atmosphere, climate activists say.

Warming earth temperatures are melting polar ice and glaciers, and also expanding the volume of the ocean, causing sea levels to rise. Carbon dioxide is among the heat-trapping greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. Carbon levels have risen dramatically since the late 19th century and sea level has risen about 1 foot in Charleston during the past 100 years.

While efforts to curb the increase in carbon dioxide are making headway in the United States, they still haven’t been enough, according to a study this week by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a regional public interest group.

Rob Young, a Western Carolina University geologist who studies coastal development and sea level rise, said the Climate Central/Zillow report reinforces his concerns.

“The primary point you can gather from this report is that we know where the vulnerable places are, and where it would be a bad idea to put infrastructure — yet we continue to do so,’’ Young said. “If you ask me what the first step is in responding to flooding in the future, it is to first do no more harm. Don’t put any more stuff in the wrong places.’’

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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