Op-ed: SC must protect rivers to safeguard communities during hurricanes

Luckily, the Southeast was spared major impacts from Hurricane Dorian. Will we be so fortunate the next time?

Members of the South Carolina National Guard assist in rescue missions in Port Arthur, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. | Photo: Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez

Hurricanes are getting stronger and flooding is becoming more frequent and severe. More than 100 dams breached in recent years in South Carolina and North Carolina because of hurricanes and flooding. These devastating storms take lives, destroy property and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Historically marginalized communities and communities of color often suffer the worst impacts, thanks to generations of systemic inequities.

So what are we doing to protect ourselves? On the plus side, champions including state Sen. Dick Harpootlian scored a win for public safety by defeating misguided legislation that would have exempted two-thirds of dams in South Carolina from safety standards.

In addition, Gov. Henry McMaster created the South Carolina Floodwater Commission to support public dialogue and encourage solutions for alleviating and mitigating flooding in coastal and river communities.

This is positive progress, but we must keep pushing for more. We need a major paradigm shift in how we value and manage our rivers. In order to protect communities, the Palmetto State must embrace five critical priorities:

  • Get people out of harm’s way: Poor planning has enabled development in flood prone areas, putting people in harm’s way. Where possible, we should compensate willing sellers and restore natural areas that can absorb floodwaters and buffer homes and businesses from damages. The property buy-outs and restoration happening on the Waccamaw River are a good example of how federal funds can assist these efforts.
  • Protect and restore floodplains: Floodplains are the natural, low-lying areas along rivers. Naturally functioning floodplains store and absorb floodwaters and reduce downstream flooding. We need to take advantage of these natural defenses.
  • Pass the South Carolina Resilience Revolving Fund Act: This bill establishes state funding for buyouts of flooded properties and supports floodplain restoration. Sens. Stephen Goldfinch, Chip Campsen, Marlon Kimpson, Sandy Senn and Paul Campbell led the charge to get this bill through the Senate in 2019. The House of Representatives and Gov. McMaster must make passing this bill and signing it into law a top priority for 2020.
  • Strengthen state dam safety laws and programs: Recent dam failures make it clear that our current standards, especially for dams in the Sandhills and Coastal Plain which are by far the most likely to fail, do not provide the level of safety we need to match the reality of today’s extreme flooding. With more than 2,300 regulated dams in the state, it’s time to confront this threat.
  • Remove dams that do not meet safety requirements: We cannot wait until dams fail to take action. Poorly maintained and improperly designed dams that are not brought up to standard need to be removed to protect downstream communities and infrastructure before they fail.

The choice is ours. Our action — or inaction — will determine whether our rivers become corridors of destruction, or whether they will be lifelines to safer, more secure communities.

Rivers in South Carolina have always been an integral part of our heritage, our identity and our way of life. Now, they hold the key to our safety, and our future.

This op-ed originally appeared online on the www.thestate.com on June 13, 2019.

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