State and federal authorities have failed to update Beaufort County’s flood maps — which are more than 20 years old — despite the fact that funding for the project has been secured for over a decade, an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette has found.
Beaufort and Jasper counties are the only two counties in South Carolina that haven’t even received a preliminary map from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, according to a federal map database, even though Beaufort County leads statewide in the number of flood insurance policies.
More than 50,000 property owners in Beaufort County – half on Hilton Head Island alone – have a policy, Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows.
Flood maps are important because flood zones determine insurance rates, which can be pricey in a place like Beaufort County where 61 percent of the land area is made up of floodplains. And new flood maps have been shown to lower some property owners’ flood insurance premiums, experts say.
An analysis of federal flood insurance premiums by the newspapers found that new maps have led to savings in some S.C. counties.
Of the the state’s 46 counties, 37 have received new flood maps. The remaining counties, except for Beaufort and Jasper, have at least received a preliminary version in the past two years.
Beaufort County continues to rely on maps released in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.
“It wasn’t intended (for Beaufort, Jasper counties) to be the last to be rolled out,” said Maria Lamm, coordinator of the DNR’s Flood Mitigation Program. “But that’s just the way it worked out.”
Hakim Bayyoud, Beaufort County’s floodplain manager, answers an average of five to 10 calls daily about when the county’s new maps will be released.
“I try to give them the best answer I can,” Bayyoud said.
Yet, the timeline for Beaufort County’s flood maps continues to be pushed back.
“I was supposed to get (the preliminary map) last March, then last July, then this month,” Bayyoud said in October. “We’ve been hearing the preliminary (map) will be released since 2012. Now we hear 2017.”
When interviewed in September, Lamm projected Beaufort County’s preliminary map to be released toward the end of this month. In early October before Hurricane Matthew arrived, she revised the timeline to January or February 2017. The newspapers asked Lamm this week if the public can still expect the maps by February, but again, the timeline shifted.
“Spring 2017 is probably the best estimate I can give right now for Beaufort County,” she wrote in an email Friday.
Any revisions to the preliminary map will take at least a year, Lamm said in October, so the final version should not be expected until at least 2018.
Meanwhile, neighboring Georgia’s flood-mapping schedules for coastal counties are ahead of South Carolina’s by about six months. Residents in those counties can expect a final map — and any potential insurance changes — sometime in the fall of 2017, according to a Georgia official.
“They (Georgia) got to learn from us,” Lamm said.
New maps, lower insurance costs?
Buying flood insurance often is required, and always encouraged, in low-lying areas.
Remapping tends to move more people out of a flood zone, which usually means lower flood insurance premiums for them, Lamm said.
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette analyzed average flood insurance premiums in the two years preceding and following a new map for a group of 27 S.C. counties included in records provided by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. The newspapers’ findings for the past eight years— FEMA’s provided time period — show how premiums changed:
▪ Eleven of the 27 counties saw average flood insurance premiums decrease.
▪ Sixteen of the 27 counties saw average flood insurance premiums increase, but 10 counties saw less than a 10-percent increase.
▪ Six counties’ average flood insurance premiums decreased by more than 10 percent.
Meanwhile, Beaufort County flood insurance premiums continue to rise, FEMA data shows. The average $503 premium price in 2009 increased 18 percent to almost $600 in 2016.
There’s no guarantee, however, that Beaufort County property owners will see flood insurance premiums fall with new flood maps.
In Georgetown County, most properties on Pawley’s Island will benefit from the new maps, South Strand News reported. But the opposite may occur in neighboring Horry County where more than 18,000 properties could be added to high-risk flood zones, The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News reported last February.
If Horry County’s map is passed as is, many property owners will be overpaying on premiums, said Stephen Williams, an environmental scientist for Earthworks. The environmental and engineering consulting group has helped several clients file appeals to FEMA.
FEMA’s new map for Horry County raises the flood-elevation level from six feet to as high as 13 feet in locations that have never flooded, Williams said. Even after Hurricane Matthew dumped historic rainfall onto the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, flood levels were still four feet less than what FEMA’s model predicted, he said.
Horry County officials hired their own consultant to assist in the appeals process and identified similar issues that Williams did. FEMA and the county have not reached a consensus on the appeals, county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said, but if approved, the changes could affect at least 900 parcels.
In a county like Beaufort where the collective value of insured property exceeds $14.2 billion, inaccurate flood maps can mean millions of dollars in additional insurance costs. A 1-percent error, for example, would affect insured property with a total value of $142 million.
Feds: Beaufort County maps ‘on hold’
The new flood maps for Beaufort County — whenever they’re completed — likely will be different from the existing outdated ones.
“It’s like going to the doctor,” said Haydn Blaize, an environmental engineer for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources. “Would you give him lab results from 25 years ago? Things have changed.”
The last official flood maps for Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal were released in 1986, Lamm, of the S.C. DNR, said. The unincorporated areas of the county date to 1992, the same year Jasper County received its last map.
51,775Number of NFIP policies
$594.71 Average cost of annual flood insurance premium
$14.2BCombined value of all flood insurance policies
$6.7B Value of flood insurance policies on Hilton Head IslandSource: FEMA
“You end up with swiss cheese maps,” Lamm said. She used the analogy of holey cheese to explain how older maps piece together towns and cities, making interpretation difficult because of the overlap.
Congress passed a bill in 2000 that mandated updating the nation's flood maps because most maps were outdated by decades. Older maps rely on elevation estimates and aerial photos, considered to be state-of-the-art techniques decades ago, but not in pace with today’s technology.
It’s like going to the doctor. Would you give him lab results from 25 years ago? Things have changed.
Haydn Blaize, environmental engineer for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources.
While insurance agents are working with county maps literally in tatters, more than half of the state’s other counties received new flood maps in the last six years, and a second round of new maps have been started for 14 counties over the past two years, Lamm said.
That’s because the DNR’s next project is mapping the state’s flood zones by watersheds, which might cover only a portion or parts of a county. A watershed is an area of land that separates waters flowing to different rivers, basins or seas.
Lamm said her agency is starting the watershed-mapping project while trying to finish the county-by-county flood maps. She acknowledged that will allow a second round of new flood maps in certain counties while Beaufort County continues to operate on old ones.
“That’s the way (federal) funding comes,” she said. “You don’t finish one (project) before you start another one.”
Beaufort County’s flood-map status is on hold as of September 15, meaning the project is experiencing delays, according to floodsmart.gov, the website of the National Flood Insurance Program. Every other S.C. county’s mapping status is listed as “active.”
Lamm said, however, she was unaware of any remapping task on hold in Beaufort County and pointed to infrequent updates to the federal website. The data shown is as of September 15.
A decade of delays
Beaufort and Jasper counties were actually among the first in the state to start the remapping process. The S.C. DNR secured federal funding for Beaufort County in August 2005 and expected the project to take approximately five years, Lamm said.
But 11 years have passed, and still there are no new maps.
One reason for the delay involved errors in a new storm-simulation technology that had the wind moving in the wrong direction, Lamm said. The model had to be re-run.
Beaufort County was also one of the last coastal counties in the state to receive updated LiDAR data, which is generated by airplanes fitted with radar-like technology that scans elevations to provide more precise topography.
2006-2007 Colleton County
2006-2007 Jasper County
2009 Horry County
2009 Charleston County
2013 Beaufort CountySource: S.C. DNR
County officials are frustrated by the delays but understand the difficulty DNR faces in coordinating with FEMA — a behemoth federal agency.
“Things come from FEMA,” Bayyoud, the county floodplain manager, said. “One depends on the other.”
Despite the delays, DNR contends that lags are not uncommon elsewhere in the U.S.
“Any state on the East Coast has taken about the same amount of time to get a map out,” Lamm said.“It’s not out of the norm.”
However, South Carolina’s southern neighbor is approaching the flood remapping process differently.
Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources started remapping areas of high population and high real estate values — metro Atlanta, for example — then moved to coastal counties.
“Flooding is an issue regardless (of where you live),” Blaize said, “but coastal counties have more vulnerabilities due to the coastal impacts.”
Georgia received FEMA funding for coastal remapping in 2010 — about four years after South Carolina — but is on track to have coastal counties’ maps take effect six months before Beaufort County’s.
About half of the Peach State, mostly low-population areas, hasn’t been remapped, Blaize said.
“We prioritized the metro areas and coast,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Georgia received FEMA funding for coastal remapping in 2010 — about four years after South Carolina — but is on track to have coastal counties’ maps take effect sometime in the latter half of 2017, he said.
North Carolina’s southernmost coastal counties have the same targeted release date as Georgia. That’s at least six months earlier than Beaufort County property owners can expect their new map, given Lamm’s projection of an early 2018 release date.
And Lamm’s timeline might be somewhat optimistic, said Randy Mundt, who works for the Tar Heel State’s floodplain-mapping program. He said the fastest turnaround for a North Carolina coastal county to receive a new map has been 18 months, with some taking as long as three years.
Lamm insists new maps for Beaufort and Jasper counties are on their way.
“It’s not an overnight occurrence to produce a map,” she said. “While it’s taken 10 years, it’s all been to get a better product. We promise they’re coming.”