Politics & Government

Rising seas, soaking storms spark call for help from SC governor

Seawalls like this one at Debordieu Beach near Georgetown protect property, but can worsen beach erosion when pounded by waves. This aging seawall has been at the center of debate about whether the state will allow it to be rebuilt.
Seawalls like this one at Debordieu Beach near Georgetown protect property, but can worsen beach erosion when pounded by waves. This aging seawall has been at the center of debate about whether the state will allow it to be rebuilt.

Gov. Henry McMaster has created a commission to study flooding in South Carolina, which faces increasing challenges from rising sea levels and intense storms.

McMaster, who recently contacted geologists, city officials and others about joining the commission, said he is launching the panel to look at short- and long-term solutions to flooding. In a news release Monday, McMaster’s office named Tom Mullikin Sr. of Camden, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House in 2017, to head the commission.

Other members of the commission will be named later. The first meeting will be held next month.

“A cohesive, collaborative statewide approach is needed to address the problem of flooding and this gives us the greatest opportunity for success,’’ McMaster said in a statement. “While it may seem like a daunting proposition, the only way to solve this problem is by working together as Team South Carolina. This commission will serve as a vehicle for authorities to exchange research and ideas while coordinating mitigation efforts and proposals.”

With the earth’s climate changing, flooding is an issue for many people along the coast, where cities routinely experience high water as sea levels rise. Parts of Charleston, for instance, regularly flood on sunny days as the ocean backs up storm drains and swamps intersections. City officials there are scrambling to address the problem.

Gov. Henry McMaster and John Warren vowed to protect South Carolina's tourism industry from offshore drilling but declined to directly answer questions about climate change during the debate June 20 ahead of the runoff election.

Other communities unaccustomed to flooding also are having problems. Columbia experienced flooding three years ago unlike many locals ever had seen when a massive rain storm dumped some 2 feet of rain on the state over a weekend.

The state’s Pee Dee region was swamped last month when Hurricane Florence dumped nearly 2 feet of rain. Parts of Conway were underwater as coastal rivers rose from flooding in North Carolina and heavy rains in South Carolina. Toxic waste from a flooded Superfund site in Cheraw prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to launch a cleanup of homes where PCB-laden mud had washed in.

How to tackle flooding, however, isn’t easy. On the state’s beaches, seawalls have been banned since the late 1980s. But there is growing pressure to ease the ban to hold back the sea. Seawalls often are effective at protecting beach houses and hotels, but they can worsen beach erosion when constantly pounded by waves.

McMaster’s announcement Monday comes about a month before the November election. The Republican from Columbia faces Democrat James Smith, also of Columbia. Both candidates have said they are concerned about rising sea levels and flooding.

Smith said McMaster’s flooding commission is a good idea, but the governor’s action is overdue. The governor has been slow to react to flooding problems, Smith said.

“The governor should have been engaged in this before the floodwaters rose,’’ Smith said.

The flood commission, which could include as many as 27 members, would have representatives of chambers of commerce, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, coastal mayors and the S.C. Adjutant General’s office.

Among those contacted recently about being on the panel was Rob Young, a Western Carolina University coastal geologist with experience in beach erosion who has been on other S.C. coastal study panels. Young has been critical of policies that allow development close to the rising ocean.

“I can only see an upside from something like this,’’ Young said of the commission. “Certainly, Mother Nature has taught us a lot of lessons in the last few years in the state of South Carolina, both with inland flooding and coastal flooding. We still don’t do a great job of limiting development and exposure of public infrastructure in those places that we know are vulnerable right now. ‘’

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