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Richland, Lexington counties left out of SC flood recovery plans

Rebuilding a home after the SC flood of 2015

Suzanne Snyder talks about the family's ordeal during the flood earlier this year. Their house in Columbia, S.C., suffered major damage and had to be torn down. The family plans to rebuild and continue living in the neighborhood they've called hom
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Suzanne Snyder talks about the family's ordeal during the flood earlier this year. Their house in Columbia, S.C., suffered major damage and had to be torn down. The family plans to rebuild and continue living in the neighborhood they've called hom

South Carolina has $96.8 million in federal flood recovery money available, but state officials do not plan to spend any of it in Richland or Lexington counties, hit hard by record rainfall last October.

State flood-recovery officials say they will spend the state’s share of the nearly $157 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants – made available to South Carolina after last fall’s historic deluge – on helping vulnerable S.C. residents elsewhere in the state.

Columbia and Lexington and Richland counties – where broken dams contributed to tens of millions in damage – received their own direct allocations from the federal housing agency. Those grants totaled more than $59.8 million – or 38 percent of the state’s total share.

Retired Army Col. Kevin Shwedo, who until last week led the state’s Disaster Recovery Office, said recently that state officials do not want to make flood aid “about the state against Richland and Lexington.”

There wasn’t that much damage (in Richland and Lexington counties) as compared to the rest of the state.”

Retired Army Col. Kevin Shwedo, former S.C. Disaster Recovery chief

But, he said, “There wasn’t that much damage (in Richland and Lexington counties) as compared to the rest of the state.”

Some Midlands officials were surprised to hear of the state’s plans on Tuesday, adding it seems the Midlands communities are being penalized for seeking the federal housing aid directly. The federal housing agency will send $23.5 million to Richland County, nearly $20 million to Columbia and $16.3 million to Lexington County.

“The reality is our residents have been hurt, and we have a lot of need,” Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. “We have a lot of citizens who have been constantly contacting us about (home) buyouts and mitigation. We’re trying to be proactive, but we’ve got a lot of needs, and we need to look at where we can spend our money.”

The reality is our residents have been hurt, and we have a lot of need. We have a lot of citizens who have been constantly contacting us about (home) buyouts and mitigation. We’re trying to be proactive, but we’ve got a lot of needs, and we need to look at where we can spend our money.”

Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine

Lexington County Council Chairman Todd Cullum of Cayce agreed, saying the state should not overlook residents because of where they live.

“We don’t want to take anything away from anybody in the state,” Cullum said. “But if you’re going to distribute help, it should be done on the basis of need and not geography.”

Richland County Council Chairman Torrey Rush said the state’s plan did not surprise him. But he noted that federal housing officials identified Richland County as one of the state’s hardest-hit areas.

“We still have to look at the long-term repairs to some of our infrastructure, buyouts for citizens,” Rush said of residents’ requests for the county to purchase flood-damaged properties and turn them into green space. “That’s still a big issue for us, and we still have a lot of citizens out there that are in need.”

There are limits on how the federal housing aid can be spent.

At least 70 percent of the money must be used to benefit low- to moderate-income residents – those who do not make more than 80 percent of the median income for their area.

S.C. disaster officials and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley have said for months the state’s priority is to ensure its most vulnerable residents – the poor, elderly and disabled – have safe housing.

And S.C. officials say they will use all of the $96.8 million to start addressing a $521.6 million unmet housing need left by the storm, according to a preliminary state action plan for how to spend the money.

The money will go to repair homes, replace mobile homes and offer temporary rental assistance, according the plan. There are no plans for home buyouts, S.C. Disaster Recovery Office spokeswoman Beth Parks said.

But state officials said those recovery efforts are needed most outside the Midlands, in counties like Williamsburg and Georgetown, where residents are most vulnerable to a natural disaster.

State officials considered more than just the value of property lost in deciding which areas were most vulnerable to disaster. They also considered residents’ income, age and disabilities.

“There are individuals in the state right now that have a $160,000 home that was ruined, but they’ve also got a combined income of $150,000,” Shwedo said. “They are not nearly as vulnerable as those people in Georgetown that got whacked when four rivers merged to completely submerge a town.”

There are individuals in the state right now that have a $160,000 home that was ruined, but they’ve also got a combined income of $150,000. They are not nearly as vulnerable as those people in Georgetown that got whacked when four rivers merged to completely submerge a town.”

Kevin Shwedo

Federal officials mandated the state concentrate nearly $65.5 million of its share into the nine “most impacted” counties.

Those counties include Richland and Lexington. But Parks said Tuesday the state plans to direct that money toward the other seven counties: Charleston, Dorchester, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Sumter and Williamsburg.

“These are communities, whole communities that have just been washed out,” Parks said.

S.C. disaster recovery officials this week are holding town hall meetings to receive feedback on the plan, which eventually must be sent to the federal housing agency for approval.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood recovery money in South Carolina

Lexington County: $16,332,000

Columbia: $19,989,000

Richland County: $23,516,000

South Carolina: $96,827,000

Total: $156,664,000

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