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FEMA, Floodwaters, and Finances in Horry County

An update on the The Climate Cost Project's study of how flooding is affecting households in Horry County, South Carolina.

How much is flooding hurting homeowners?

The reality of repeat flooding has already arrived for many American households. According to NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management, high tide flooding in many US towns is already twice as frequent as it was in 2000.

For many low-lying areas in the Eastern and Gulf Coasts of the United States, where sea-level rise and frequent hurricanes converge with heavy rainfall and interconnecting riverine systems, flooding is becoming a way of life.

To understand how frequent flooding is affecting household finances in such high-risk areas, the Climate Cost Project partnered with Horry County Rising in Horry County, South Carolina to examine the impacts on household finances of people affected by flooding and repeat flooding. We examined several key metrics, including how much people had to pay out of pocket for costs that weren’t covered by insurance, home values, and the number of times people had flooded in the past five years.

What did we find? The biggest takeaway was that FEMA aid and insurance were not enough to help homeowners recover from a flooding event. In a sample where the median household income was $37,500 a year, median out-of-pocket expenditures for flooding for the period of 2015-2020 was $20,000.

The last five years have been a period of intense flooding for the residents of Horry County. Since 2016, Horry County has been directly hit by two major hurricanes and impacted by severe winds and rainfall from eight additional hurricanes or tropical storms. Heavy rainfall and high tides have led to more frequent backups of a confluent river system, resulting in a lot more routine flooding on top of the major hurricanes. Flood risk in Horry County, indeed, in many counties around the country, is defined by 100-year flood zones—or houses that having a 1 percent chance of flooding each year.

But these outmoded descriptions of flood risk can no longer capture what people in Horry County are facing. Eighty-one percent of the homes surveyed had flooded two times or more in the 5 years covered in the survey. A full one-third of the houses surveyed were not even in the high-risk flood zone. Further, while the survey captured the number of times that the floodwaters entered people’s houses, almost all residents reported that there was routine flooding on their streets and that they lived in fear that their homes would flood again.

This fear is a fear of dislocation, and loss of place, but also a real fear of financial ruin. While examining survey responses and performing follow-up interviews, we encountered many respondents in the survey who could no longer afford to sell their houses because their wealth was severely impacted by flooding. In a detailed follow-up analysis of fifteen households, we found that home values were indeed impacted by repeat flooding. The median decline in home value from the survey sample was 17%, despite a tight real estate market in Horry County. When looking at total wealth impacts, the median loss of wealth for people in these households was $85,000.

These findings provided support for people’s reports that repeat flooding, and FEMA requirements that they rebuild their home in the same location were contributing to their financial hardships and resulting in their being stranded in locations where they did not feel safe.

Our work is a snapshot of what is happening in Horry County, but there is reason to believe these residents’ experiences reflect dynamics in repeat flooded areas on the East Coast as a whole. We believe more research and attention to this issue is needed. You can read the whole report here.

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