Like many others have done in recent years, Mike Wannemaker wanted to turn his family’s vacation destination into a permanent home.
A corporate officer at a Maryland IT company, Wannemaker decided after his firm was bought out in 2015 to permanently move his family to a home they had owned for several years, just outside Surfside Beach city limits and close to the beaches that Wannemaker loves.
The following year, Hurricane Dorian struck, and the Wannemakers’ home flooded. Then it flooded again. Then Hurricane Matthew struck, and the home flooded yet again.
Each time, it was a similar routine: Rip out the carpets and flooring, cut out parts of the drywall, pull out the insulation, followed by reconstructing the home and moving the furniture back in, piece by piece.
“The first time we thought it was a fluke, the 500-year storm and all that,” Wannemaker said. “The second time is like, ‘Oh geez,’ the third time you start losing your hope and motivation.”
In retrospect, Wannemaker said if his house had been built just a little differently, he and his family likely wouldn’t have had to muck out and rebuild it so many times.
“If our house was two to three feet higher we wouldn’t have flooded,” he said.
Horry County is looking to make regulations just like that a reality to help prevent flooding during the types of storms that have sent stormwaters into homes like the Wannemakers’.
On Tuesday, the Horry County Council passed a measure that would revamp the county’s flood prevention ordinance by formally adopting new maps of where and how high recent flood waters have risen, adjusting building codes and banning certain buildings and other critical infrastructure from flood-prone areas.
Taken together, it’s one of the most forceful responses by the county yet to repeated flooding experienced by residents across the low-lying county.
Local advocates applauded the council’s vote.
“This is the Super Bowl for us,” April O’Leary said in a recent interview. She heads the local flooding-prevention advocacy group Horry County Rising, which has played a critical role in shaping and pushing for the new ordinance. “If it passes, this is great, a lot of these enhancements will help a lot of families.”
What the ordinance will do
The ordinance — technically a 2021 update to legislation first adopted in the 1980s — would do several key things in the unincorporated areas of Horry County:
Adopt preliminary federal flood insurance maps, in addition to an Horry-County-specific supplemental flood map to set high-water levels to be used for future building;
Increase freeboard requirements — the space between high flood water levels and the finished floor of a home — from one foot to three feet;
Bar “critical facilities” like schools, police stations and hospitals from flood-prone areas;
Require existing buildings within flood zones, per the adopted maps, to upgrade their facilities in the event that a structure takes on damage greater than or equal to 48% or more of the market value of the property;
Require that if a home or other building is raised to the new freeboard standard using fill, rather than stilts or other means, the builder ensure stormwater doesn’t run off the property and inadvertently flood neighboring properties.
The new restrictions won’t apply in any incorporated municipality, some of which already have stringent building codes to prevent flooding. Surfside Beach, for example, requires a three-foot freeboard, and the ordinance the council passed Tuesday wouldn’t affect that.
The new maps the county adopted as part of the ordinance clearly define the 100-year floodplain, as well as the high water marks reached during Hurricane Florence in 2018. By adopting those maps, county planners said, the county can now hold builders accountable to where flood waters actually rise to. However, the new restrictions will only apply to the areas outlined on the maps, viewable on the county’s Map Your Move website.
“If Council approves (the ordinance), it will be the current effective flood maps, the preliminary flood maps and the supplemental, whichever is the highest and most stringent of the three would apply for building purposes,” said Lauren Harrelson, the county’s flood hazard reduction officer who worked on the ordinance. “If you are located outside of that our flood ordinance would not apply to you and therefore those regulations do not apply to you.”
The revised ordinances could also save residents money on their annual flood insurance bills. When a local government imposes stricter building standards, a property’s risk of flooding is decreased. When a home is built three feet or more above flooding levels, Harrelson told council members Tuesday, a homeowner could save up to $95,000 on flood insurance over the course of a decade.
At Tuesday’s meeting, advocates with Horry County Rising, many of whose homes have flooded during past storms, urged County Council members to pass the updated ordinance.
“It’s difficult to talk about the physical and financial devastation of flooding,” said Kevin Mishoe, a resident of the Bucksport community. “We pray and hope that our council will (support this ordinance).”
Ultimately, the council voted to pass the ordinance unanimously, clearing the path for the ordinance to win a final approval in two weeks.
Council member Johnny Vaught proposed lowering the freeboard requirement from three feet to two feet, but no other council members took him up on that proposal. Council member Tyler Servant, who wasn’t at the meeting, sent a message asking that county staff provide an amendment to the ordinance that would ensure business owners weren’t harmed by the stricter regulations.
Ahead of their vote, O’Leary thanked council members.
“It is going to provide some of the best flood prevention in South Carolina,” she said.
A long road to Tuesday
Upgrading the county’s building standards to match flood waters has been a long process, O’Leary and others said. O’Leary said she began working more diligently on flooding and building issues after her family was displaced from their home for a year after Hurricane Florence. That’s when she started Horry County Rising, a group that’s done community organizing to direct political pressure on local leaders to better respond to storms and flooding.
In December, O’Leary was named to special commission to study and respond to flooding in the county. By the spring, in addition to other work, the commission had produced a re-write of the county’s flood ordinance.
On Tuesday, O’Leary said it was an important day.
“Flood protection measures ... are really, really important to families that flood, families like myself, and the thousands of families that flood in Horry County, specifically over the last few years,” she said. “So these better protections and measures will really do a better job mitigating damages.”