SC’s $157 million ‘action plan’ criticized for failing to acknowledge climate change, sea-level rise

SC’s $157 million ‘action plan’ criticized for failing to acknowledge climate change, sea-level rise

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s Department of Administration has submitted a 123-page proposal to the federal government, which outlines how $157 million will be used to prepare 17 counties for natural disasters.

However, some stakeholders have called the “action plan” disappointing because it does not acknowledge the role of climate change and sea-level rise in fueling such disasters.

“We’re just setting ourselves up for more of the same,” said Phillip Dustan.

He’s a professor of ecology at the College of Charleston and a vocal advocate for sustainable efforts to address climate change and its local impacts.

“This grab to get money looks like some sort of word salad someone put together based on a webinar on what should be in the grant with no real focus on what that money could be spent for," Dustan said.

What is clear through the proposal is that 17 counties in South Carolina, many of them situated along the coast, are vulnerable to flooding and other hazards.

However, the action plan does not outline specific projects to make the state’s infrastructure, housing, and planning more resilient to the impacts of such hazards.

“It doesn’t acknowledge the threats of climate change and how we might be able to deal with that at the root,” Dustan said. “Here’s a pool of money. Let’s do something creative with it and something that can really help us plan for the future. In some respects, it’s sort of shameful, criminal, just negligent not to do that. Not to have that view. There’s no way we are going to stop climate change, stop sea level rise, no way we are going to stop these storms so let’s figure out how to prepare for it.”

The only mention of the word “climate” in the entire proposal fell on page 16.

“Given the recent disaster experience within South Carolina and in the MID defined areas, we highlight the climate-sensitive hazards related to flooding, severe storms, and hurricane/tropical storms systems, beginning with flood risk,” the action plan described.

Meanwhile, “sea-level rise” was only mentioned in the proposal to say SCDRO’s flood reduction efforts would not be addressing sea-level rise issues or those caused by storm surge.

Instead, the plan centers on four broad categories: “flood-reduction infrastructure projects, housing buyouts, providing the local match funds for FEMA-funded mitigation programs, and planning activities to assist units of general local government (UGLGs) with updating hazard mitigation plans and developing flood-reduction studies for their communities.”

Counties eligible for the assistance include Charleston, Berkeley, Clarendon, Calhoun, Dorchester, Chesterfield, Florence, Darlington, Georgetown, Dillon, Horry, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Sumter, Orangeburg, and Williamsburg.

The need for assistance is apparent. The proposal cites three major storms within four years including the 20 inches of rainfall that devastated parts of the state in 2015.

“The effects of these storms will be felt for decades,” the action plan described. “The greatest impact of these declared storms, in many ways, were their destabilizing effects and unpredictability…Actions to mitigate future damages need to be made now, before the next storm strikes. Stability can be given to these people through mitigating future storm damage. While the State might not know where a storm will hit, it does know which areas are likely to experience the most damage. With the appropriate funds, the State can target these areas for mitigation projects that will improve resiliency for individual households, neighborhoods, and communities.”

Homeowners, like Ana Zimmerman, know the reality of those effects all too well. Her James Island house was damaged by flood waters.

She fears an “action plan” that is fueled by federal dollars and submitted without clear direction on how the money will be spent could exacerbate the problems that led to her home’s demise.

“Yes, we do need to look into the future, but we also need to look into the present. There are currently many people that are suffering, have suffered or are in extreme danger of their entire life as they know it being turned upside down and people are getting hurt. People are getting sick, and we need to get people out of harms way,” Zimmerman said. “We need to really have a different approach than maintaining a status quo of putting more money into an existing problem. If it’s not working, we need a solution. We don’t need to continue doing the same thing.”

Kelly Coakley, the SC Dept. of Admin.’s director of strategic communications explained that part of the mitigation program would include buyouts to acquire repetitive flood loss properties and move at-risk persons out of harm’s way.

“As HUD requires that 50 percent of its mitigation funding must benefit the grantee’s low to moderate income community, SCDRO’s action plan, which was open for public comment through Jan. 24, 2020, is designed to increase resilience to and reduce or eliminate long-term risk of loss of life or property based on the repetitive losses sustained in this state,” Coakley said.

HUD is now reviewing the state’s action plan for approval or to ask for changes if any are identified.

However, some environmentalists believe it’s time for government officials to acknowledge what many scientists believe is driving the repetitive flooding Coakley called “the greatest risk for South Carolina’s socially vulnerable low to moderate income community.”

“This use to be a political argument. But now you’re arguing with the water in the street or in your backyard. It’s no longer theoretical," said Eddy Moore, the Coastal Conservation League’s energy and climate program director. “The things we need to do are so doable and so close at hand. It’s time to act. It’s time to stop hiding from the facts.”

Moore is concerned that the state’s “action plan” doesn’t address long-term plans.

“It doesn’t look far enough ahead if we’re not acknowledging the problem that’s driving it so that we engage people in figuring out what else is going to happen,” Moore said. “It’s never healthy to be in denial. It would be helpful if our various elected officials could acknowledge that because I think it will help focus the response. It’s very good to be resilient, but it’s not enough to take tax money and use it to react to damage after occurs or just before it occurs. I think we need to get to the root of the problem...pretending that climate change is not causing the issue is not helping us in dealing with it."

In a statement, Coakley said:

Since the flood of 2015, several presidentially declared disasters have impacted South Carolina. Under Governor Nikki Haley’s direction and continued with Governor Henry McMaster, the South Carolina Disaster Recovery Office (SCDRO), on behalf of the state, has been and remains focused on addressing the needs of those most greatly impacted — South Carolina’s socially vulnerable low to moderate income community.

In implementing the HUD funded mitigation program, the South Carolina Disaster Recovery Office (SCDRO) conducted a mitigation needs assessment in conjunction with the nationally recognized Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute of the University of South Carolina.

The mitigation needs assessment, which addressed major hazard risks, found that the actual repetitive flooding sustained poses the greatest risk for South Carolina’s socially vulnerable low to moderate income community.

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