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Flood recovery out of reach for many in rural South Carolina

Flooding damage in a house in Marion County, South Carolina, as seen by graduate students working on the Deepening Our Understanding of America’s Most Vulnerable Communities project in the summer of 2019.

This is part of a series of stories from the field for the “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage” project.

By Meg Duffy

NICHOLS, S.C. — Water seeped under the doors of old homes and trailers in Nichols as the flooding from Hurricane Matthew began. Nichols is situated just north of the confluence of the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers, so as 18 inches of rain pelted the Carolinas, water came flooding into Nichols, bringing fertilizer, dead animals, and sewage along with it. No evacuation order had been issued for Marion County, so as the waters rose that October night in 2016, most of the town’s 350 residents were still in their homes. 

Mayor Lawson Battle, a burly oil-industry man in his late 30s, began search-and-rescue efforts around 7 p.m. With local law enforcement and volunteers, he moved approximately 150 people to the safety of the Nichols Town Hall, the only elevated spot nearby large enough to house the town’s population. These rescue workers found most residents by wading around the town and loading people into pick-up trucks, but around 4:30 am, they had to use a boat to get to a young man standing on top of his sunken SUV on a dirt road. The man had lost cell phone service driving home from college, only to become stranded in the current. By the next day, the team had successfully moved everyone to safety, but Mayor Battle lost his home and pick-up truck in the process.

Across the county in Sellers, Mayor Barbara Hopkins was moving elderly people to safety when a downed power line set her house on fire. Working across town as her home burned, she listened helplessly on the phone while a neighbor told her she had lost everything.

Both mayors shared the fates of their constituents. They lost everything due to Hurricane Matthew. Then two years later, the same thing happened again.

Plan for recovery

Hurricane Florence battered the Carolina coast in 2018, leaving behind chaos and destruction, right as families were moving back into their homes after the previous flooding. Less than a month later, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster stepped up with a plan. Through executive order, he created the South Carolina Floodwater Commission, which consists of 10 task forces charged with addressing issues ranging from artificial reef systems to national security. The task forces’ priorities all related to different aspects of climate change, although that term was conspicuously absent from the governor’s order. In a press conference following the commission’s inaugural meeting, Tom Mullikin, the commission’s chair, promised quick action to protect South Carolina families from future disasters.

Sellers, Nichols, and other small towns in Marion County needed this help. With a countywide poverty rate of 24.2% and mobile homes making up 29.3% of housing stock, these communities could not recover without outside financial investment.

Disaster relief funds 

Federal agencies allocated almost $400 million in disaster aid to eastern South Carolina to help families rebuild from Hurricane Matthew. Marion and neighboring counties were hit the hardest, so the department of Housing and Urban Development earmarked $76 million to fund recovery projects in Marion and Horry counties, specifically. The Federal Emergency Management Agency allotted over $300 million for disaster recovery throughout the Pee Dee and Low Country regions. The South Carolina Disaster Recovery Office, which was created in 2015 following a devastating flood to the state’s capital, was set to oversee the disbursement process. With the money, distribution mechanisms and Floodwater Commission in place, South Carolina seemed poised to bounce back quickly from these disasters.

Spending the summer in Marion County, we encountered a different reality. Most people in the hardest-hit communities are still displaced years after Hurricane Matthew. Of the 180 families in Nichols, only around 90 had moved back into their homes when we spoke to Mayor Battle in July. In Sellers, only 40 of 93 families have moved back into their homes. Some of the Nichols and Sellers residents had recently returned after years of living with relatives while others had never had the money to move elsewhere to begin with.

Available aid misses mark

So, despite swift government action and the millions of federal dollars dedicated to helping these families, why have so few returned to their homes?

In a deeply disenfranchised area like Marion County, a complex web of barriers stands between disaster victims and the programs designed to help them. The most salient barriers include challenges in communication about aid, a longstanding distrust in government, individual-level hardships related to the poverty of the region and expensive requirements for aid recipients.

Displacement disrupted the normal channels of communication, making it difficult for federal agencies and local organizations to spread the word about recovery aid. Residents scattered when the floods came, rendering many unreachable. We learned in our conversations with local leaders that even when people heard about aid opportunities, many thought they would be ineligible for aid or, even worse, believed that if they reached out to the government for help, the government would take their homes. Distrust in the government depressed application rates for FEMA and HUD recovery aid so that by the time the formal application window closed for Hurricane Matthew recovery, many families living in destroyed homes still had not applied.

For those who heard about the available aid and trusted they could get it, illiteracy and lack of documentation prevented many families from submitting the paperwork to save their homes. Functional illiteracy is a part of life for some baby boomers in the rural south, where many grew up attending school part-time so they could support their family farms. Other families lived in homes inherited from long-deceased relatives and lacked the formal deed required for disaster recovery funding applications. These hurdles made the already complicated bureaucracy of federal aid more difficult to navigate.

Red tape slows flood recovery

Even families who learned about available aid and were able to navigate the mountain of paperwork still struggled to use the funding to rebuild their lives.

Houses situated in one of Marion County’s floodplains are subject to elevation requirements of a local Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance of 2011. This ordinance mandates that property owners elevate their homes to two feet above mean sea level before doing any additional home repairs. Not only is this process exorbitantly expensive (costing between $40,000 and $130,000, according to local news reports), but for many it is also structurally impossible due to the severity of the storm damage.

In addition to the elevation requirements, the South Carolina Disaster Recovery Office requires aid recipients to purchase insurance, including flood insurance for those who live in a flood zone. These requirements could mitigate the property damage from future storms, but in high-poverty communities in Marion County, the requirements prevent property owners from receiving aid in the first place.

After a year of work, the Floodwater Commission recently released its preliminary findings. In the document, the commission describes these increased extreme weather events as “the new normal.” They’re right — as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, we will see more intense hurricanes coming out of the Atlantic Ocean, repeating this process of destruction and displacement. But unless the government changes its approach, this “new normal” means Marion County will never recover.

Meg Duffy is a third year master’s student pursuing a dual degree in public policy and public health at the University of Michigan. Meg is interested in changing policies and institutions to eliminate health disparities by race. Her undergraduate degree is in public policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to graduate school, she worked in community-based food systems research at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

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