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Office of Resilience Seeks to Anticipate, Minimize Future Flood Damage

FILE - Flooding in Forest Acres, SC, in 2015
Tut Underwood
SC Public Radio
FILE - Flooding in Forest Acres, SC, in 2015. A new state office will help minimize the damage done by floods such at the 2015 “thousand year rain” that caused damage to homes and businesses.

South Carolina's new Office of Resilience will team with the SC Floodwater Commission to reduce future damage from hurricane and extreme weather-caused flooding.

No one who has lived through a flood will ever forget it. South Carolina has had more than its share in recent years: the historic flood of 2015 caused by the so-called “thousand year” rain courtesy of Hurricane Joaquin; and floods in 2016 and 2018 caused by hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

In 2018 the state created the South Carolina Floodwater Commission to find ways to address flooding problems. Chairman Tom Mullikin said the biggest problems caused by flooding are the result of climate change, sea level rise and extreme weather.

“We’ve got nuisance flooding along the coast associated with sea level rise. We’ve got coastal erosion along the coast due to extreme weather coming off the hurricanes. And then we have flooding in some of our basins associated with storms coming up through the Gulf. So it’s a very complex science.”

The volunteer Floodwater Commission is working with the new professional Office of Resilience, which began operation July1, to mitigate flood damage. Chief Resilience Officer Ben Duncan said some of the destruction that climate-caused flooding has wrought in South Carolina includes people trapped in their homes by flood waters or harmed trying to get out; homes destroyed, washed off their foundations or severely damaged; mold; and infrastructure problems such as washed-out roads and clogged or damaged drain lines.

The state has gotten grants from HUD to replace – or, in some cases, buy out – homes in flood-prone areas, but the need for funds to repair damage and install infrastructure will always be there, said Duncan.

One natural strategy to fight flooding was illustrated by Mullikin, who cited the Floodwater Commission’s Earth Day 2021 planting of 3.4 million trees across the state. “So why did we do that? One mature tree absorbs 11,000 gallons of water annually,” he said. Three-point-four million times 11,000 gallons annually is the impact that that’ll have once those trees are fully matured.” The Earth Day event was the largest tree planting in the world, according to Mullikin.

Duncan’s office is working on a statewide strategic plan to control flooding. It will employ multiple strategies because, he said, there are different kinds of flooding problems. “There’s flooding called riverine flooding - that’s flooding that comes over the banks of the river. There’s ponding, there’s flash floods…water cannot drain off fast enough.”

Undersized infrastructure systems is a problem that many do not think of, the resilience officer said. “That’s probably the biggest one, making sure we get infrastructure systems out there to drain the water off fast enough. And that’s what’s going on down in Charleston. They are putting in a huge tunnel down there to drain the water off faster so they will not be flooding.”

Duncan added that South Carolina is working with other states to share lessons on what works to mitigate flooding. “There is a Carolinas Resilience Conference that has been in effect the last four years…to determine where problems exist, what we can work on together, and to see what other states are doing also. With Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana we’re trying to find best practices. So we are working with those other states on a constant basis.”

Mullikin said there are things South Carolinians can do to help fight the effects of flooding in the future. “Plant a tree,” he emphasized once more. “If every one of the families in the state of South Carolina, and the churches and the other groups would…go into these areas and plant trees, it will matter.

“And then help us clean these creeks and canals and rivers out, because the best thing that we can do is have natural flow from the mountains to the sea,” he said, stating his belief in rivers and streams as natural drains for carrying off excess water. “And right now, a lot of what’s impeding that is garbage.”

According to Duncan, the number one goal of his office’s plan will be to think ahead and be proactive rather than reactive after a flood. Resilience includes anticipating things that might happen and being prepared for them, he said.

Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.