Politics & Government

Rising sea levels, fierce hurricanes: How SC plans to deal with more flooding

Gov. Henry McMaster talks about South Carolina’s flooding problem

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and S.C. Floodwater Commission Chairman Tom Mullikin Sr. discuss how officials plan to solve the state's worsening flooding problems.
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S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and S.C. Floodwater Commission Chairman Tom Mullikin Sr. discuss how officials plan to solve the state's worsening flooding problems.

State and coastal leaders say they are determined to find solutions to tackle flooding in South Carolina that will serve generations to come.

But that will not include debating climate change. Instead, members of a new commission plan to start small, addressing nuisance flooding in “hot spot” neighborhoods where improved drainage systems are needed, while studying longer-term solutions, such building artificial reefs.

“Our challenge is great, and our time is short,” said Camden attorney Tom Mullikin Sr., chairman of the new S.C. Floodwater Commission, created in October by S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, that met for the first time Thursday. “We find ourselves on the horns of a three-front quagmire.

“We have coastal erosion that is complicated by recurring extreme weather systems. We have nuisance flooding along our coastline, and we have flooding in our river systems across South Carolina from rushing watersheds in North Carolina from extreme weather originating in the Gulf.”

About 50 government officials, business leaders and academic experts gathered in Columbia Thursday to work on one of 10 task forces charged with developing short- and long-term recommendations to reduce the impact of flooding “from the sea to the Upstate.”

The task force members includes two coastal congressmen, Charleston Democrat Joe Cunningham and Myrtle Beach Republican Tom Rice; eight state agency heads; and five coastal mayors.

“I believe in brain power, and there’s plenty of it in this room,” McMaster said. “This is a broad, collaborative approach to a pressing need in South Carolina that has great possibilities. ... We have an opportunity to do things we have not done before.”

Historic flooding has swamped S.C. communities from the Upstate to the Midlands to the Lowcountry over the last four years as a result of high tides, storms and hurricanes.

And several landmark reports on climate change released this year predict thousands of homes and businesses in the Carolinas could be at risk from more intense storms and coastal flooding driven by rising ocean temperatures and higher sea levels.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last month and led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says climate-related damages hit a record-breaking $306.2 billion in 2017 in the United States.

“It impacts our entire state, from dams to river flooding to coastal erosion. But for coastal areas it is really an existential ... threat,” said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, a commission member.

The commission will evaluate how artificial reefs could reduce coastal flooding and how to best protect the state’s electrical grid from storms. Commission members, too, will look at shoreline stabilization methods, including bulkheads, and ways to reduce urban flooding through use of green space and permeable pavement.

Others groups will look at developing canal systems along the coast and Lowcountry, expanding the state’s lake system and securing federal money to help pay for proposed solutions.

More immediately, commission members will focus on identifying and prioritizing repairs to culverts, ditches and other existing drainage systems to alleviate nuisance flooding.

One area, however, the commission will not tread is climate change and strategies to cut climate-impacting emissions.

“We are going to deal with the real-time impacts of a climate that has changed throughout all of time,” Mullikin told reporters. “We — the governor — is not entertaining a political conversation ... to what degree man’s actions have amplified global climatic change. We are here to talk about the immediate and long-term expectations” of flooding in the state.

Mullikin said the commission’s “efforts will be neither piecemeal nor driven by special interests.”

“We will lead everyone to the higher ground,” the former S.C. State Guard commander said. “We intend to make water our friend.”

The full commission is scheduled to meet again in February.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.