Charleston’s use of federal grants to raze flood-prone properties part of a national trend

The Bridge Pointe neighborhood in Shadowmoss flooded during Tropical Storm Irma. Three homes in the neighborhood will be bought out with a FEMA grant. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The federal government is awarding the city of Charleston more than $10 million in grants to help buy 48 flood-prone properties in West Ashley — a bargain given what it would cost to keep repairing them after every major flood.

With more frequent storms and a National Flood Insurance Program about $25 billion in debt, these grants help the federal government cut its losses on properties that simply aren’t worth saving again and again. For the homeowners, it offers an escape that likely wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

"It’s such a relief that the residents are going to be able to get out of these homes because they’re just another storm away from flooding," said John Knipper, president of the Bridge Pointe Homeowners Association.

Bridge Pointe’s 32 townhomes, which have been flooded four times in the past three years, are among the first properties the city will purchase with hazard mitigation grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the past, the city has used the funds for other types of resiliency projects, such as the renovation of Dock Street Theatre to make it more shock-proof during earthquakes.

Once the 48 West Ashley properties are razed, the properties will be used as green space, ensuring nothing else will be built there again.

"This is good news for affected residents, and a major step forward for our larger Church Creek Drainage Basin strategy," Mayor John Tecklenburg said in a written statement. "I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to get this job done, including Governor Henry McMaster, U.S. Senators Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, U.S. Representatives Mark Sanford and Jim Clyburn, S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, and S.C. Rep. Lin Bennett, as well as city staff and members of our city council.”

Derrec Becker, a spokesman for the state Emergency Management Division, said the agency has noticed an uptick in the number of communities asking to use the federal grants to buy out vulnerable properties.

"With homes flooding more often, local governments have made a concerted effort to apply for grant funds to acquire those homes and turn them into green space that reduces the jurisdiction’s overall flood risk," he said.

Information about the two FEMA mitigation grants has trickled out since Tuesday afternoon, when City Councilman Dean Riegel circulated an announcement from Sen. Tim Scott’s office about a portion of one grant approval. The scope of the two grants wasn’t fully known until Becker confirmed the details Wednesday afternoon.

Here’s a breakdown:

The first $7.8 million grant includes $5.84 million from FEMA and $1.95 million from the city. It covers the 32 Bridge Pointe townhomes, three single-family homes in Shadowmoss, and another single-family home off of Wappoo Road. Another $3.2 million grant includes $2.4 million from FEMA and $806,058 from the city. It’s for 12 single-family homes in Shadowmoss, Hickory Farms and on Playground Road.

The city submitted both applications in September 2016.

The grants were awarded from the state’s FEMA fund for hazard mitigation following the historic floods in October 2015. Seven municipalities — including Columbia, Sumter, Lexington County and Richland County — applied to use them for property buyouts. All have been approved, Becker said.

After natural disasters, FEMA reimburses states for 75 percent of the total cost of reported damages. On top of that, states get a separate fund for grants that cities and counties can apply for to fund a range of mitigation projects, including property buyouts. The idea is to help communities recover from disasters while also encouraging them to better prepare for future events.

The state is just beginning its application process for mitigation funds FEMA approved after Hurricane Matthew, Becker said. More grant requests have been submitted than the funds can cover, he said.

The status is unknown for North Charleston’s request of $1.3 million to buy nine homes in the Pepperhill community. City officials didn’t respond to requests for details Wednesday.

Laura Cabiness, Charleston’s Public Service director, said the city will seek another round of grants from the Hurricane Matthew funds to cover the cost of elevating three historic homes that have filed repeated flood insurance claims in the last few years. She said that process might be trickier than property buyouts in West Ashley.

"We’re not going to tear down historic properties. That’s just not going to happen," she said. "If we’re going to protect these buildings, we’ve got to come to some sort of compromise on how they can be protected from floods and still retain their historic character. And that’s a big stretch for us."

As for future acquisitions, Cabiness said the city has limited options. Congress approves annual allocations for buyouts, and it’s typically only enough to cover a fraction of the requests made across the country.

The city will continue working on new stormwater plans in areas such as the Church Creek drainage basin to ensure low-lying areas aren’t developed, she said.

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