By Tom Mullikin
With hurricane season upon us, the entire east coast of the United States is again holding its breath, particularly southeastern states like those of us in S.C., N.C., Georgia and Florida. States with coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico are facing similar angst and anticipation. Here in South Carolina we might expect what we have experienced since 2015: record flooding, displacement, property damage, even loss of life. It is not a pleasant expectation, but a new reality nonetheless.
But the Palmetto State is not taking it lying down. In Oct. 2018, Gov. Henry McMaster established the S.C. Floodwater Commission, a first-of-its-kind in-state effort bringing together stakeholders from government, academia, the military, and environmental groups and others in the nonprofit sector to analyze and address the flooding issue comprehensively, as a single team. It is a proactive approach aimed at mitigating disasters (like we’ve experienced in recent years) and protecting lives and property. Other states might wish to take note.
No one can’t prevent hurricanes. But we can mitigate their effects in a fashion similar to what the Netherlands did in 1953 when nearly 2,000 people were killed following the North Sea Flood. For the Dutch, it was an inflection point, resulting in construction of the most sweeping flood-defense system in the world. In the 66 years since, the country has not lost a single citizen to flooding.
In the U.S., sadly, we can’t say the same. Each year, hurricanes cost billions in damages and dozens of lives. Last year alone, storm damage cost us $50 billion. If a foreign enemy invaded our country and caused that kind of damage, we would be at war. Instead, we throw money at repairing the problem after the fact rather than preventing it in the first place.
In South Carolina, the 11th smallest state in the nation, four major flooding disasters have impacted us in the period between 2015 and 2018 – most recently Hurricane Florence. Collectively, these events resulted in 37 deaths and damage to nearly 150,000 homes. Damages exceeded $800 million, with an estimated total loss of $320 million in tourism dollars. For a coastal state like ours so heavily reliant upon tourism, it is a challenge of the utmost urgency. And we’ve decided to take action.
Taking a cue from the Netherlands, Gov. McMaster made the decision to establish the Floodwater Commission by Executive Order late last year, and we’ve been working feverishly against the clock since.
The Commission consists of 10 task forces (essentially working-group subcommittees), each with a different area of focus: artificial reef systems, living shoreline, infrastructure and shoreline armoring, smart river and dam security, grid security, landscape beautification and protection, national security, stakeholder engagement, federal funding and economic development.
In the 10 months since its founding, the Floodwater Commission has analyzed each of these issue areas, syncing mapping data, meeting with engineers, identifying weaknesses in our critical infrastructure and more. A collective – and voluminous – report will soon present a comprehensive picture of the problems we face and the solutions we must pursue.
Our recommendations will be wide-ranging. Artificial reef systems will buffer shorelines against waves, storms and floods. Native vegetation and living shoreline will deter erosion and aid in groundwater infiltration. Prioritizing porous, permeable surfaces in new construction and development can help protect property from storm damage and flooding. Expanding lake systems through river diversions can open economic opportunities for watersports while providing for potential electricity generation. The possibilities – and opportunities – are endless, and we will consider them all.
Perhaps most important to this equation is volunteerism. Not long ago, the Commission brought hundreds of volunteers to the town of Nichols, S.C., a community of about 350 people that has suffered devasting flooding twice in the past three years. The group – which included the governor, lieutenant governor, a congressman, a state senator, two state representatives, four mayors and 100 members of the S.C. State Guard – were there to do the dirty and unglamorous work of clearing and cleaning ditches along the roadways and culverts in the flood-ravaged community. By day’s end, volunteers had cleared 25,000 feet of roadside drainage and another 1.5 miles of canal. And it became clear to all that this is how government is supposed to work.
South Carolina faces challenges on three fronts: Coastal erosion complicated by recurring extreme weather systems; nuisance flooding along our coastline; and flooding in our river system from rushing watersheds in North Carolina. Time is short.
Our goal is to begin preparing our resiliency strategy so that our state can handle any circumstance. We intend to make water our friend. When the Commission has finished its work, we will hand over to our children and grandchildren a state that is as beautiful, protected, and prosperous as the one we were blessed to inherit. Other states might take a page from what we are doing to protect their own futures.
Tom Mullikin is chairman of the S.C. Floodwater Commission.