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30 years after Hugo tore it down, SC coast builds back in the danger zone

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Hugo: 30 years later

Three decades have passed since the killer storm, Hurricane Hugo, cut a path of destruction through South Carolina and beyond.

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When Hurricane Hugo hit Georgetown County 30 years ago, the big storm pounded a barren sand spit at the south end of Litchfield Beach, chewing up dunes and eroding the oceanfront, before cutting through South Carolina on a trail of destruction.

At the time, no one said much about Hugo’s impact on the narrow spit because not much was there.

Then in the late 1990s, construction workers arrived on the property, building the first grand home in a row of new oceanfront houses. Today, about three-dozen houses perch precariously on the sand spit, between the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a tidal creek on the other. Some are fortified by an unapproved seawall, built as protection from the rising seas.

The story of south Litchfield is a familiar one in South Carolina three decades after Hurricane Hugo ripped the state. Despite causing $7 billion worth of damage on Sept. 21-22, 1989, Hugo did little to discourage new or more intense development on many stretches of the state’s coast.

In places where small beach cottages once stood, magnificent new houses have been erected. Tidal creeks just off the oceanfront are booming with development. And in some vulnerable spots, high-rise condominiums tower above the ocean.

All this is occurring as sea level rises and more powerful storms lash the coast, and as S.C. legislators dismantle regulations to control coastal development.

The coastal buildup is a big issue for an array of reasons. It’s potentially dangerous because more people are living in the path of storms and rising seas, but building too close to the coast also threatens to pull money from the pockets of taxpayers. When people lose homes, condos and hotels along the coast, the federal government often winds up bailing out wealthy property owners through insurance, beach renourishment funding and emergency services.

People familiar with the post-Hugo development say the state didn’t learn many lessons about building near the sea. While South Carolina has had hurricanes since Hugo, none has had the same devastating impact as the 1989 storm.

“For those of us who know you can’t beat Mother Nature, there is great concern’’ about the increase in coastal development, said John Richards, the state’s chief insurance commissioner during Hugo. “You have to imagine what the losses would be in today’s dollars if Hugo transpired again.’’

If a storm like Hugo hit today, smacking the coast directly and plowing through the state to Charlotte, it would cause an economic loss of $16 billion, according the University of South Carolina’s hazards research institute. That’s mainly because of the increased population and residential development on the coast, USC researchers say.

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Litchfield Beach on Friday, September 6, 2019. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

According to a range of statistics, it’s clear that Hugo did little to deter people from moving near the ocean or directly on the beachfront. Among the growth trends:

More people. The population of South Carolina’s four primary ocean counties has grown 75 percent since 1990, the year after Hugo. More than 1 million people live in the Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island areas today, compared to under 600,000 three decades ago, census data show. And the population of those living closest to the beach has swelled by more than 165,000 since 1990 in the state’s major ocean counties, census statistics show.

More houses. Developers built more than 100,000 housing units, which includes houses and condominiums, in census tracts touching the ocean from 1990 to 2017, according to census data analyzed by the National Historical GIS System. The number of housing units rose from 177,361 in 1990 to 292,910 in 2017, an increase of 65 percent.

Lost open space. Nearly 64,000 acres of open land have been developed since the mid 1990s. Shopping centers, beach homes, hotels and other types of development have replaced woodlands and wetlands, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Charleston. The 64,000 acres of coastal development is more than double the size of Congaree National Park in Richland County. About half of the development occurred in the Myrtle Beach area.

High risk building. More than 1,200 homes have been built in areas of South Carolina where certain types of coastal flood threats are forecast to increase during the next 30 years, according to Climate Central and Zillow. The homes, valued at $1.3 billion, are mostly in the Charleston area.

More people with flood insurance. Statewide, the number of federally backed flood insurance policies has increased more than 300 percent since 1989 and doubled since 1999, according to the statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Insurance Information Institute. Of 203,358 flood insurance policies in South Carolina, nearly 175,000 are for property in the state’s four main ocean counties.

More high rise condos. In some places, huge condo towers and big homes were built in areas, that at one time, had been considered by state law to be unsafe to develop. State regulators have freed hundreds of oceanfront lots of tough development restrictions. In North Myrtle Beach, for instance, at least four high rise condominium buildings have been built since Hugo after state officials approved less restrictive development standards.

Satellite images, provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show major development along tidally influenced rivers near Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. The Bluffton area near Hilton Head Island has exploded in growth, as have major areas along U.S. 17 Bypass and U.S. 501 in Myrtle Beach, according to the satellite pictures.

South Carolina’s coast has built up for multiple reasons since Hugo, among them the continued availability of federally backed flood insurance that subsidizes coastal development and a state beach law that never worked as designed.

Beach development since Hugo also likely occurred because of the state’s commitment to renourishing beaches, which gave people a sense of security that their homes and hotels were protected by extra layers of beach sand, said former state Rep. Lenoir Sturkie, who was active in oceanfront development issues in the 1980s.

Since Hurricane Hugo, 41 beach renourishment projects have been conducted in South Carolina, compared to 14 before the storm, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Most of the $331 million spent on renourishment since Hugo has come from state, federal and local taxpayers.

Now, as development and redevelopment have continued on the beaches, tidal rivers and marshes, the threat — and the damage — continue to mount in South Carolina with each new storm.

Since 2015, a historic rainfall and four hurricanes have smacked South Carolina, most recently this month’s Dorian. The storms have damaged billions of dollars worth of property.

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Homes on the Isle of Palms showed the brunt force of Hurricane Hugo after it caused heavy damage to much of the South Carolina coast in 1989. FILE/THE STATE

NASCAR and sand dunes

Norman Pulliam and Cale Yarborough know all about that.

They’re among the people who built houses at the southern end of Litchfield Beach. It was hard to resist.

With sweeping views of both the ocean and the salt marsh, the property virtually sold itself. It was quiet and secluded, behind a guard gate that restricts public access to the Inlet Point community. And at low tide, beachcombers could walk across an inlet that became so shallow they could reach neighboring Pawleys Island.

Those who bought lots there felt reassured that they had made a good investment. After all, a local developer at one time had considered building a hotel there, so the spit appeared stable enough for beach houses, Pulliam said.

“It was advertised and backed up as one of the most stable pieces of property around,’’ said Pulliam, a Spartanburg businessman who chairs the S.C. Department of Natural Resources board.

The houses, valued at more than $2 million apiece, include large porches, garages and neatly landscaped lawns. Many of the homes exceed 3,000 square feet, with some twice that size. Property owners who invested in the spit include a number of successful business people and sports figures, including Yarborough and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, now a NASCAR team owner.

Yarborough, the legendary NASCAR driver from Florence County, said he remembers natural sand dunes lining the spit at Litchfield before he and some friends built the beach house there in 2004. Yarborough said he didn’t think much about Hurricane Hugo when he decided to build the house, but he loved the scenery.

“I had partners in the construction of it, and it was so beautiful that, after we finished it, I bought the partners out,’’ Yarborough said.

Things are more complicated now. The beach is eroding enough to make Pulliam and Yarborough nervous.

Photographs taken by The Sun News before Hurricane Dorian this month show a row of homes with decks and walkways jutting onto the beach. After Dorian blew past, many of the wooden structures were gone or damaged, and there was evidence that sea water had gotten under some houses during the storm, according to photographs by The Charlotte Observer.

Hurricane Dorian also wiped out the dunes and damaged a seawall neighbors built to protect their investments from the ocean, Pulliam said. Yarborough said property owners at Litchfield need help, but they aren’t alone in their battles with beach erosion.

“It’s devastating the way the dunes are washing away and leaving our houses standing there,’’ Yarborough said. “I don’t know what can be done about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue back then, but it is now. All around the coast it’s a major problem.’’

In a recent interview, Pulliam said he plans to take the wall down because it isn’t allowed under state law. Yarborough said he’s already removed his seawall. Both said they’ll seek state permission to push up sand on the beach in an effort to protect their homes.

Even so, Yarborough said it’s hard to understand why he can’t have a seawall.

“That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, that you can’t put up a wall to protect your property,’’ Yarborough said. “Somebody needs to have some reason somewhere. It’s a shame that everybody is going to lose all their property down there because you can’t put a wall up.’’

The state prohibits new seawalls because they make beach erosion worse when pounded by the waves, leaving less seashore to walk on.

Retired University of South Carolina professor John Mark Dean said it amazes him that people have naively built close to the sea after what the state experienced with Hugo.

The midnight storm practically leveled some communities, knocking beach houses into the street and smashing others to splinters. Entire communities, including Pawleys Island and Garden City, looked like they had been bombed. Driven by winds of up to 140 mph, a wall of water surged into coastal communities, eroding beaches, swamping streets and flooding anything in the way.

“The beaches are dynamic,’’ said Dean, who served on a committee in 1987 that recommended a tough coastal development law. “There will be storm events that overwhelm the system.’’

Rob Young, a coastal geologist from Western Carolina University, said the effort to save property from the ocean will ultimately fail because of rising earth temperatures and increasing sea levels.

But he said it’s not surprising that people were comfortable enough to build near the ocean after Hurricane Hugo.

“We had a quiet period after Hugo when we didn’t get many storms,’’ Young said. “The last 3 to 4 years, that’s not so true.’’

Since Hugo, hurricanes have caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage across the Caribbean and the Southeast, including more than $600 million in South Carolina last year when Hurricane Florence blew through.

Hurricane Matthew, which landed at McClellanville in 2016, caused more than $10 billion in damage in the Southeast. The storm sent a surge of water over the beaches in places like Horry County’s Garden City, covering roads with so much sand bulldozers had to scrape them off.

At least seven hurricanes that have hit or come near South Carolina since Hurricane Hugo have caused more than $ 1 billion apiece in damage in the Southeast, according to statistics in a 2018 National Weather Service report.

Repeat offenders

Up to 359,000 homes in South Carolina are today at risk of flooding from hurricane-driven storm surges, according to recent data released by the national Insurance Information Institute. The Palmetto State ranks fifth nationally in homes at risk from storm surge, ahead of North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, the institute reports.

South Carolina also continues to have multiple flood insurance losses to buildings that are damaged in one storm, repaired, then damaged again in later storms.

From 1978 to 2017, the owners of nearly 400 buildings in South Carolina received flood insurance payments at least four times because of damage to those buildings from different storms, according to national data compiled by consultant David Conrad, a water policy adviser to the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

That’s more than seven other coastal states and territories, including Georgia, Hawaii and Maryland, statistics show. Through the years, some of the greatest repeat flood insurance losses nationally have been at Cherry Grove, a low-lying part of North Myrtle Beach that is prone to flooding, according to Conrad’s research.

Efforts are under way in Congress to reform the federal flood insurance program, but Conrad said the availability of affordable flood insurance has been a key factor in allowing coastal development close to vulnerable shorelines. The nation needs to seriously reassess the program, he said.

“We have way too many situations where losses are sustained over and over and over again,’’ Conrad said. “And the losses associated with flooding are skyrocketing.’’

It’s a big deal to taxpayers because the federal flood insurance program often doesn’t bring in enough in premiums from oceanfront land owners and others to pay off all the claims after major hurricanes. That means taxpayers must bail out the system, spending billions of dollars to pay claims.

Overall, South Carolina property owners received more in flood insurance payouts in 2016, the year Hurricane Matthew hit, than all states except Louisiana and Texas, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Mark Abkowitz, an engineering professor who studies risk and hazards at Vanderbilt University, said the idea of rebuilding in the same place after a flood is something society needs to be careful about.

“If you are experiencing hurricanes or violent storms in general more frequently, and that is a trend that is likely to continue, then you really have to question whether putting things back in place — where they were and the way they were — is an intelligent decision,’’ he said.

One positive since Hugo is that tougher building codes have been adopted so that new buildings are better able to withstand hurricane damage, said USC hazards researcher Susan Cutter and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, whose administration was in charge when the Holy City felt the force of Hurricane Hugo 30 years ago.

Many homes must now be elevated to avoid flooding and new homes in coastal areas must be better able to withstand hurricane-force winds.. Riley said South Carolina,, and the nation, also have better means of forecasting major hurricanes, which gives communities a better picture of what is approaching and when to evacuate.

“The buildings are built more sturdily now than they would have been before the storm,’’ Riley said.

Still, South Carolina faces threats on its heavily developed coast that even better building standards can’t stop.

Doug Marcy, a NOAA scientist in Charleston, said sea level has risen in the Lowcountry about 1.2 feet since the 1920s and about 4 inches since Hurricane Hugo in 1989 as a result of global warming.

It is forecast to rise another 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century, he said. Some forecasts have placed the rise higher. That’s an issue because hurricanes can cause worse flooding — and flooding farther inland — when the sea level is higher, he said. Salt marsh areas -- increasingly popular as new home sites -- are particularly threatened, he said.

“The whole coast is going to be equally vulnerable,’’ Marcy said. “I think the big issue is going to be in the marshes. Can the marshes keep up with sea level rise?’’

Politics over science

For much of the past 30 years, legislators have watered down what once was considered a model oceanfront development law. And coastal regulators, under pressure from politicians who had heard from wealthy property owners, have allowed development because they say the law isn’t strong enough.

Passed by the Legislature in 1988, the Beachfront Management Act was supposed to move new development back from the beach gradually over 40 years. But it didn’t take long after Hurricane Hugo for legislators to begin amending the law.

Initially, they agreed in 1990 to drop restrictions that forbade any development or rebuilding within 20 feet of the beach. After Hugo destroyed hundreds of beach houses and property owners asked for help rebuilding, this so-called “dead zone’’ was eliminated from the state Beachfront Management Law, allowing many homes to be built back.

Under the amended law, people also were allowed to build farther out on the beach if they received special permits from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Since 1991, the state has granted more than 60 permits to allow development farther onto the beach.

Then, in response to a court case in 2002, the Legislature changed a part of the law to allow rock groins on beaches that many believed would slow the rate of erosion. But groins can worsen erosion below the walls -- which run from the beach into the ocean to trap sand -- by starving downstream beaches of sand. The Legislature’s action at the time was in response to a state Court of Appeals ruling that the walls were illegal.

Later, DHEC began moving some building restriction lines seaward so that bigger development projects could be built closer to the ocean.

Most recently, the Legislature has been engaged in multiple disputes over whether to ease the state’s ban on new seawalls, a prohibition that for decades was largely unchallenged. The dispute has focused on whether to let a handful of wealthy property owners at Debordieu, just down the coast from Litchfield Beach, rebuild a sagging seawall that juts far onto the beach.

The Legislature adopted a law last year that abandons the state’s policy of long-term “retreat’’ of new development from the beach. In changing the law, legislators also delayed limits on development on the beach after renourishment projects.

State Rep. Davy Hiott, R-Pickens, indicated last spring that the Legislature would look at easing the seawall ban when it returns in 2020 for its next session.

Sturkie, the former state representative from West Columbia, said lawmakers were forced to tone down the beach law after Isle of Palms property owner David Lucas received a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that eventually forced the state to pay him $1 million for over-regulating his oceanfront land. The state had to compensate him because it had rendered the property useless for development through the 1988 law.

“We could see the repercussions,’’ said Sturkie, who now lives in Myrtle Beach.

Ironically, the Lucas case has rarely been used to prove government regulations had devalued people’s property, legal experts say.

Young, the Western Carolina University researcher and expert on southeastern beach erosion, said South Carolina has nickled and dimed the law to the point where it hasn’t worked as intended.

It’s all an exercise in futility, he said.

Hugo proved what a major storm can do to South Carolina. And there’s plenty more to be battered if another Hugo returns.

“The 1988 Beachfront Management Act was groundbreaking legislation,’’ said Young, who remembers Hugo blowing through South Carolina while he was a graduate student at Duke University. “It was the best in the country when it was passed. And it was bipartisan.’’

But Young said “it has been attacked by the private property rights movement.

“The fact of the matter is that coastal erosion and sea level rise may have caught up with a lot of these oceanfront homes.’’

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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