Thousands of homeowners in inland North and South Carolina stand to be inundated by Hurricane Florence’s drenching over the next few days, but hardly any of them carry federal flood insurance, leaving them at risk of a devastating loss, with little prospect of help from the federal government.
A McClatchy analysis of federal data shows that in the coastal counties, a relatively high percentage of households carry flood insurance policies, but the percentage drops off just a few miles inland. Overall, only 9 percent of households in South Carolina and 3 percent in North Carolina carried federal flood insurance as of mid-2017, according to National Flood Insurance Program data reviewed by McClatchy.
Experts say Florence is sure to result in billions of dollars in uninsured losses, as well as more financial strains on the government’s flood insurance program, which is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in Texas caused $8.3 billion in federally insured flood damages, and nearly $120 billion more in uninsured losses. Florence could cause similar destruction.
“That is completely within the realm of likelihood with this storm,” said R.J. Lehmann, a flood insurance specialist with the R Street Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “Something like Katrina is unlikely but not impossible. Florence is a 400-mile-wide storm, with 30 inches of rain projected in some places.”
As of Thursday, the National Weather Service was forecasting Florence to drop 20 inches of rain or more in coastal areas stretching from Myrtle Beach, S.C. to Wilmington and then up to Morehead City in North Carolina. But heavy rains of 10 inches or higher are projected to stretch far inland, to the Interstate 95 corridor of both states.
That heavy rainfall poses a threat to uninsured homeowners in South Carolina cities such as Florence and even Columbia, the state capital. In both of those areas, less than 3 percent of homeowners are covered by federal flood insurance, even though Columbia flooded heavily in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew inundated the Pee Dee River region the following year.
Michael DuBois remembers the 2015 flood vividly. Record rainfall caused a creek near his rented home on Timberlane Drive in Columbia to swell and rage, flooding many of his neighbors.
“The water was getting close to their roofs,” DuBois recalled. “It was engulfing their home. By the middle of the day everyone was moving things up the hill.”
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DuBois suspects that few of his neighbors had purchased flood insurance prior to the storm, because the area had never been inundated before. Columbia attorney Bert Louthian had a similar experience. Neither of his neighbors in Little Lake Katherine had flood insurance. He did, but only because his mortgage company had required it.
“The water came up the back yard and we thought, ‘It’s never been that high before so it should stop,’” Louthian said. “Then it got to the pool and we thought it would stop. Then it got into the first floor and we thought it would stop.”
Although flood insurance is rarely purchased by inland homeowners, nearly a quarter of households in Horry County, S.C., where Myrtle Beach is located, hold federal flood policies. That’s in part because they and many other coastal residents live in designated “high risk” flood zones, where federal insurance is required.
Such high-risk zones are based on maps prepared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yet many of those maps are widely viewed as misleading and outdated, failing to represent recent flood events, rising sea levels and other potential impacts of climate change.
During Hurricane Harvey, roughly 80 percent of the storm’s flood victims had not been required to carry flood insurance, even though some lived in areas that had previously flooded.
“Today, flood risk maps only exist for about one-third of the nation – only 1.2 million of 3.5 million miles of streams, rivers and coastlines have been mapped,” said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, in testimony to a House committee last year. “Even today some of the maps are many decades old.”
Federal flood insurance isn’t a cure-all for homeowners hit by flooding. The policies cover up to $250,000 in rebuilding costs and $100,000 to replace personal belongings. But for some families, such coverage can mean the difference between recovery and destitution. While FEMA offers grants for victims of natural disasters, those grants are capped at $33,000, and generally the payout is less.
Lehmann estimates there are 400,000 homeowners holding federal flood insurance policies in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, totalling $106 billion in coverage. If 10 percent of those sustain flood damage, the insurance program could be on the hook for at least $10 billion in payments, more than what was paid out after Hurricane Harvey or Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
That’s a problem, he said, because another costly hurricane could exhaust the insurance program’s resources, forcing FEMA to once again borrow from the U.S. Treasury.
“This program since 2004 has borrowed $40 billion from taxpayers and has only paid back less than $3 billion of that money,” Lehmann said. “That is a direct subsidy from people who are not at risk to people who are at risk.”
In recent years, the R Street Institute, insurance companies, environmentalists and other taxpayer advocates have founded a group called the SmarterSafer Coalition to reform the National Flood Insurance Program. The coalition has pressed Congress to invest more in floodplain mapping, facilitate more private insurance and force certain high-risk homeowners to pay more for insurance.
That latter provision has come under fire from property owners, the real estate industry and coastal lawmakers, one reason Congress has balked at making major changes to the program.
In Columbia, DuBois moved away from his flooded neighborhood following the 2015 disaster, but says he learned a lesson. If he ever buys a house near a creek or river, he said, he would buy flood insurance, whether it was required or not.
“We don’t believe in 1,000-year floods anymore,” DuBois says. “It seems there’s 1,000-year floods all over the country.”
The State’s Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.