In the past five years, South Carolina has been hit with six major flood-related disasters that combined have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. People and their property across the Palmetto State are vulnerable to flooding, but a new law, signed Sept. 29 by Governor Henry McMaster (R), is a major step toward reducing that risk and the costs associated with natural disasters. The Disaster Relief and Resilience Act,which passed the South Carolina Legislature with bipartisan support, will spur state and local disaster planning and create two programs to fund flood-risk reduction projects statewide.
One key provision in the new law creates an Office of Resilience, making South Carolina one of a handful of states to establish this level of government agency focused on preparing for and reducing the impacts of flood disasters. Informed by models of current and future flood risk, a statewide plan overseen by a chief resilience officer (CRO) can help state and local decision-makers coordinate disaster mitigation and preparedness. Such a plan can also be instrumental in aligning funding streams and guiding investments for flood mitigation projects across the state.
State-level planning and coordination are important for improving understanding of local and regional vulnerability to flooding and can inform better land use decisions, such as avoiding construction in flood-prone areas and ensuring that development will not exacerbate flooding downstream. Regional planning can also yield cooperative mitigation solutions—such as flood plain restoration that results in networks of parks and greenways—that benefit multiple communities within a watershed.
The CRO will also help to direct and implement the new flood mitigation initiatives that the legislation creates: the Disaster Relief and Resilience Reserve Fund and the South Carolina Resilience Revolving Fund. These programs will support a variety of flood risk reduction projects that could ultimately save state taxpayer dollars. This includes helping local governments purchase repeatedly flooded homes from willing property owners—such as those in the Horry County community of Socastee, which has experienced multiple floods in recent years—so they can relocate out of harm’s way. Those properties would then be converted into permanent green spaces, restoring the flood plain’s ability to absorb excess waters. These types of projects are smart investments; research shows that every $1 invested in pre-disaster mitigation saves society an average of $6 in future disaster costs.
Importantly, the programs follow recommendations from the state’s Floodwater Commission—created by Gov. McMaster to develop strategies to address threats posed by severe storms—to prioritize the use of nature-based flood solutions to protect communities and infrastructure. Research suggests that natural defenses, such as wetlands or living shorelines—which use rocks, sand, oyster shells, or vegetation to absorb excess water and stabilize coastlines—can often be effective and economical prevention measures. From Charleston to Greenville, communities in South Carolina are embracing natural solutions to decrease their flood risk, including restoring the Reedy River to slow and disperse floodwaters and creating parks and green spaces in West Ashley to soak up stormwater.
Nature-based projects also benefit South Carolina’s economy and environment. Wetlands and living shorelines can help improve water quality, provide habitat for fish and shellfish, and protect the state’s beaches. And conserving or restoring undeveloped areas can enhance opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.
Lastly, the new law requires municipalities to include a resilience component in their local comprehensive plans, which guide future growth and development within a community. This measure will extend consideration of future flood risk in planning and investments to multiple levels of government and enable officials to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
These efforts—coupling funding for pre-disaster mitigation activities with a statewide resilience plan—directed by the new resiliency office will help safeguard the state’s resources and residents from the next round of storms and flooding. Legislators must now take the next step and provide robust, dedicated funding for these important forward-thinking programs.
Yaron Miller is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities initiative.