Greenville County Lets The Floodplains Flood

Oct 20, 2016

After Greenville County bought out about 20 homes in the Kingsgate Community, the neighborhood turned the land into a park with a community garden.
Credit Cooper McKim

The light brown wooden wall cabinets, drawers, stove and oven in the kitchen at the Greenville County building are hand-me-downs. The kitchen supplies came from homes the county bought and then demolished.

“If we bought a house and there is something in there that we paid for that can be used and recycled then let's do it.” Assistant County Administrator Paula Gucker said. “Because then I don't have to go out and buy cabinets or countertops.”

The homes Gucker is talking about were in flood prone areas. The county is buying out these properties to encourage people to move out before they are flooded.  After the homes are gutted for useful materials, they are demolished and no permanent structure is allowed to be built on that lot again.

Gucker walks through a green neighborhood park with wildflowers, large trees and a community garden. She said the county bought out around 20 homes in this neighborhood in two years. The path she walks along is noticeably lower in elevation from the road.  

“And this area would be underwater.” she said. “We saw a lot of first floor flooding here.  And when the water would recede there would actually be fish in the fields. Small fish, but that’s how deep it would get here.”

Gucker said the harmless-looking streams in the area are the problem. The short intense rains this area has been experiencing causes these babbling brooks to rise over their banks in a few hours. Grace Cantrell dealt with this exact problem in her old house right in front of Rocky Creek.

“In non-flooding situations, that creek was is so tiny,” she said. “It’s just like a little trickle just going along. You couldn’t even need boots to wade in it or walk across it.”

But a few years ago, the creek rose over her flood fortification in just two hours. A few feet of water rushed into her one story house and saturated her walls, furniture and home recording studio.

“We were just homeless, broke, devastated, traumatized,” she said. “We moved into those pay by the week hotels.”

She thought the house was a total loss until she found out the county was going to buy her home at the pre-flood value. Cantrell says much of that money went to the insurance company and other costs. But she insists, “That saved us from financial ruin.”

Cantrell and her husband have moved out of the flood zone. They now live in a home that is 25 feet higher than her previous property. The lot where her dream home used to be is now an empty, flat, grassy area, “with absolutely no remnant that any structure was every there.”

This is the point. Gucker explains the idea is to let the floodplain flood.  

Buying out homes isn’t a new idea. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been doing it for a while. The agency said a few other localities in the Southeast have similar programs to Greenville. What makes Greenville County’s program unique, is the proactive buy outs funded with local storm water monies.

Hazard mitigation consultant Jeff Ward has worked on several thousand buy outs around the country, including some in Greenville.

“There are huge numbers of properties being taken off flood insurance rolls,” he said.

Greenville has bought out 172 homes in about nine years. Ward is also referring to communities that are using federal funds to help acquire homes, which is more common. He said FEMA is putting more money into these buy outs while increasing insurance premiums for those with the highest risk. He believes the combination is encouraging people to get out of these so called Severe Repetitive Loss properties, SRL for short.  

“There is not enough money in FEMA program, probably never will be, to keep ahead of the number of SRL properties out there,” he said.

SRL’s are just about one percent of the properties under the national flood insurance program, but they account for nearly a third of flood claims. Ward said these home buy outs save the government money, but it is hard to put a number on just how much. The test, he said is next time there is a disaster, how many of those homes would have suffered damage again.