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April 6th, 2021

FEMA, Flooding, and Household Finances in Horry County South Carolina

A Report by the Climate Cost Project

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Read the full report: 

The Climate Cost Project partnered with Horry County Rising in Horry County, South Carolina to examine household financial impacts of flooding and repeat flooding. The project examined out-of-pocket spending, debt, and equity impacts on households, and the extent to which National Flood Insurance (NFIP) and FEMA grant assistance helped households to recover.  

Key Findings

  • Access to flood insurance or FEMA did not protect the finances of households facing repeat flooding.

  • Households receiving FEMA aid still paid a median of $20,000 dollars out-of-pocket to recover flooding. The median income in the sample was $37,500. 

  • FEMA Special Hazard Flood Maps dramatically underestimate flood risk. One-third of houses that flooded or repeat flooded between 2015-2020 were outside of both the existing and new proposed flood zone.  

  • In many cases, NFIP requirements resulted in people depleting their savings and retirement to rebuild houses that were declining in value, and where they no longer felt safe. 


Read the Full Report

Executive Summary


This paper presents the results of an analysis of wealth impacts to individual households from severe and repeat flooding in Horry County, South Carolina and examines the degree to which Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) aid has protected the finances of flood survivors. The analysis relied on a household economic survey (n=127) of flood survivors, and follow-up phone interviews (n=15) of a subsample of households to validate results and obtain more context on survey response.


The larger survey (n=127) examined flood damage costs that were not covered by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance (NFIP) or Individual Assistance Programs (“out-of-pocket costs”), damages to properties that were left unrepaired, and the number of times each household flooded. Respondents reported high out-of-pocket costs regardless of whether or not they had received FEMA assistance, with a median value of $20,000 for houses that received assistance (70% of respondents) and $7,500 for those that did not (30% of respondents). These expenditures represent a significant fraction of the median household income for the survey, which was $37,500. The median income of survey respondents was below the county’s median income of $50,000.


Eighty-one percent of surveyed houses had flooded two or more times in the last five years. One third of surveyed homes were located in flood zones still designated as low risk in the proposed updated FEMA Special Hazard Flood Area maps for Horry County.  


To obtain a better picture of the impact of FEMA assistance on total household wealth, the project carried out phone interviews of 15 respondents to obtain more detailed information about their FEMA experiences. Because many interviewees reported being underwater on their mortgage, the Climate Cost Project performed a follow-up property analysis for these households to get a more complete picture of the total wealth impacts from repeat flooding, including home values.   


The 15 households suffered an average and median loss of wealth of $139,146 and $85,000, respectively, or 1.36 times the median household income of $62,500 dollars of respondents in the subsample. The median decline in home value with respect to the purchase price of the home was 17%. All but one respondent indicated that they would have liked to have moved rather than rebuild their home in the same location, but none were offered buyouts. All respondents whose homes had declined in value cited the falling value of their home, and the amount of money they had lost to flooding, as a major factor in their inability to move.


In both the full sample and subsample, the Climate Cost Project found that many houses (30%) that faced devastating single or repeat floods did not receive any NFIP or Individual Assistance Program help from FEMA. Nevertheless, even people that did receive assistance from FEMA were still left with significant financial exposure and were often forced to deplete their savings and/or take on debt to rebuild a home that was declining in value. In some cases, this burden was exacerbated by FEMA requirements to rebuild to certain flood protective standards. In the end, respondents found themselves stranded an area that was either already experiencing repeat flooding, or had a high risk of flooding again in the future.  


Household losses in this survey reflect the onset of increasingly severe and frequent flooding that has emerged in the region in the last five years. The results add to a body of work demonstrating the urgent need for reform in FEMA policy in order to protect homeowners, counties, and the country as a whole from repeat flooding exposure, which will only increase the coming decades.

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