Cindi Ross Scoppe

2 years after the Columbia floods, SC still argues instead of acting

Intersections throughout Forest Acres were underwater during Columbia’s thousand-year flood. Charleston’s intersection of Wentworth and Barre streets floods at high tide on dry, sunny days.
Intersections throughout Forest Acres were underwater during Columbia’s thousand-year flood. Charleston’s intersection of Wentworth and Barre streets floods at high tide on dry, sunny days.

THE INTERSECTION of Wentworth and Barre streets lies more than a block east of the Ashley River and a good half-dozen blocks north of the tip of Charleston’s peninsula. But at high tide, the water pools up enough for cars to create small wakes as they drive through.

It’s worse after hundred-year floods and hurricanes target the S.C. coast, and after former Category 5 storms drive up through western Georgia into the Upstate — three such events in three years, and counting — but, as reporter Sammy Fretwell told me in amazement, it even happens at high tide. On dry, sunny days.

Not because the tide sweeps that far inland. But because the underground water table is so high and the storm drainage pipes so full from the ever-rising sea that water wells up from underground, flooding the streets.

A hundred thirty miles inland, once-picturesque lakes that inflated residential property values have been replaced by mudflats and meadows, the result of the thousand-year flood that inundated Columbia two years ago. Some lakes drained because their own dams were too weak to hold back the pressure of all that water. Others were inundated by flood waters from failed dams upstream. Although many of the weakest dams are washed away, many more remain in place.

We argue a lot about what’s causing our weather to change, and what if anything we should do about that. But for people who live in Charleston and other coastal communities, there’s no debating the fact that it is changing.

__________

Downtown Charleston is flooding more, with or without hurricanes

Why we need a new dam law (it’s not the reason you think)

If the rains came again today, how would Columbia cope?

__________

For people in the Midlands who suffered through the 2015 floods and have watched with painful understanding as similar catastrophes — practically unheard of until a few years ago — return every year to strike other inland communities, there’s less and less reason to doubt what they are seeing.

No responsible person would try to tie a single storm to changes in the climate. But the trend in recent years is inescapable: Storms are getting bigger, stronger, more frequent. They are bringing more destruction — particularly in the form of intense rainfall — farther inland. To communities that never imagined they would be flooded. To us.

Here in South Carolina, it’s time we set aside the debate about cause and focus on the reality of effect.

If you don’t believe that human actions are causing the climate to change, just accept the fact that it is changing. If you oppose federal intervention to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, fight those changes at the federal level. Here at home, accept that South Carolina has to change how we develop flood-prone land, regulate dams and recover from disasters.

If you do believe that human actions are causing the climate to change, save your energy-is-evil speech for when you lobby the Congress. Recognize that South Carolina is not going to do anything about that, and focus on the things we can do to deal not with why, but with what. With what is.

Two years after the floods of Columbia, we still don’t have a state dam safety law that spells out the legal responsibilities of people who own dams that can damage property or even endanger lives downstream. We have a larger staff to enforce the law that we do have, and at least for now an agency that is committed to enforcing it — which is more than we had two years ago. But the Legislature can’t even agree to require dam owners to visually inspect their own dams every year. Or let dam regulators know if they sell their dams. Or provide their contact information to state officials.

Two years after the floods, a few pieces of flooded property are being bought out, thanks mostly to federal funding, but most are being rebuilt. Columbia even relaxed its requirements for rebuilding flooded property because … they threatened to stop some people from rebuilding flooded property.

Although Charleston is working on its storm-water rules, there’s little to nothing being done statewide to reduce future damage by buying the most flood-prone properties and replacing them with parks or other open space. Not in the most vulnerable coastal communities. And certainly not along rivers in the state’s interiors.

And whenever anyone in the Congress suggests reducing the grotesque federal subsidy for flood insurance — or even requiring tougher building standards to qualify for the insurance —South Carolinians flood their representatives with demands that people who do not live in flood-prone areas continue to subsidize the waterfront views of those who do.

Isn’t it about time that all of us who don’t live in flood-prone areas — the vast majority even here in South Carolina — start demanding that they do rein in that program? So it ceases to encourage people to rebuild in places where taxpayers will have to bail them out — again?

If we actually acknowledged the changes that are occurring, the state and communities throughout the state would be toughening their requirements for building in flood-prone areas, lobbying for tighter restrictions on federal flood insurance, aggressively buying out flood-prone property — all deeply conservative and common-sensical ideas long before anyone heard of sea-level rise. And, absolutely, we’d be improving our dam-safety law, so owners have to take responsibilities for the danger they pose to people downstream.

How many more catastrophic storms is it going to take before we start acknowledging reality?

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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