Many Beaufort County homeowners could see reduced flood insurance premiums with the release of new preliminary flood maps that show less flood risk, though residents likely will have to wait more than a year before seeing any savings.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency maps — the first proposed changes for the county in more than 30 years — show few homes moving into a high-risk flood zone, and most properties either being rated within that zone as less flood-prone, or moving into a lower-risk zone that doesn’t require flood insurance, local floodplain officials say.
The maps predict a property’s risk of flooding by placing parcels into different zones that carry different flood insurance rates. A homeowner with a property that falls within the high-risk “AE” zone on the new maps could pay an annual premium costing thousands of dollars for a policy that typically covers up to $250,000 in damages. Those in the low-risk “X” zone are not required to have flood insurance, but those who do likely would pay far less, typically a few hundred dollars.
With the new maps, Hilton Head Plantation resident John Schwartz’s home would move from the high-risk flood zone to the “X” zone, a change that Schwartz said his insurance agent told him could save $600 yearly in flood insurance premiums — a 46 percent decrease from his current $1,300 annual payment.
The change also does not require Schwartz to keep his flood insurance.
“But of course, I’ll keep it,” he said.
Hurricane Matthew dumped six inches of water onto the first floor of Schwartz’s home on the island’s north side last fall, soaking his living room furniture, turning his drywall into a sponge, and warping the particleboard of his kitchen cabinets.
The culprit was later revealed not to be storm surge, but a rain-induced drainage issue, "which can happen anywhere," said Hilton Head’s floodplain manager Shari Mendrick.
Several homes in the gated community, including Schwartz’s, flooded during the Oct. 8 storm, but the drainage issues were mostly covered by insurance. Schwartz said his insurance paid for most of the Matthew-related repairs, which totaled $135,000 and spanned five months.
In Matthew’s wake, anxiety permeated among residents of Hilton Head and elsewhere in the county, as many wondered when the next big storm would hit. They didn’t have to wait long: Less than a year after Matthew, on Sept. 11, Tropical Storm Irma barreled through the Lowcountry with storm surges, heavy rains and high winds.
Yet despite the recent string of powerful storms, Beaufort County’s newly released flood maps show generally less flood risk than 30 years ago.
Exactly how many residents will benefit and the specific amount of cost savings are unknown, however, as the latest flood maps are only preliminary and face months of formal review.
The last official maps for Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal were released in 1986, earning the municipalities the distinction of relying on the oldest flood maps in the entire state. After federal funding was secured for Beaufort County’s new maps in 2005, following years of delays, FEMA finally issued a preliminary set of maps this summer.
Although the new maps likely will offer good news to some property owners’ pocketbooks, future hurricanes and rising sea levels aren’t factored into the making of the maps — a point some experts say understates the risks of living in a low-lying coastal community.
“It’s a bit puzzling, isn’t it?” said Larry Larson, director emeritus and senior policy adviser for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a national organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.
Extreme storms, changes in drainage patterns due to new development, dam failures or clogged drainage systems can strike properties outside of designated flood zones. Experts say these are reasons homeowners should keep their flood insurance policies even though the new flood maps might place their properties in lesser-risk zones.
A recent study by Rice University and Texas A&M-Galveston of insurance claims found that 75 percent of flood damage along Texas’ coast in the first decade of this century occurred in areas not designated by FEMA as a floodplain, the Houston Chronicle reported.
In Beaufort County, Hurricane Matthew flooded 10 homes in The Farm, a Bluffton neighborhood. Yet FEMA’s current flood maps don’t place the community in a floodplain and neither do the new preliminary maps.
“There is always the possibility of flooding when you live in a region called the Lowcountry,” said town of Bluffton floodplain manager Richard Spruce.
Here are what the county’s preliminary flood maps, still subject to review, currently show:
Across the island, base flood elevations, or the height at which new structures must be built, are typically listed on the current maps at 14 feet, said Mendrick, the town’s floodplain manager.
That would drop to 8 or 9 feet with the new maps, which could lead to insurance savings, she said.
The new maps show roughly 15 square miles of properties moving out of the high-risk flood zone, Mendrick said. Most of those homes are centered in the middle of the island, such as the Indigo Run community, which is almost entirely out of the high-risk zone.
Mendrick, however, encouraged all property owners to keep their insurance policies.
“You live on an island,” she said. “You should have flood insurance.”
▪ Base flood elevation for oceanfront homes currently are at 16 or 17 feet. The new maps generally set the elevation at 10 feet. However, a handful of older oceanfront homes, concentrated near North Forest Beach, would move to a special zone for waterfront property and typically associated with higher insurance rates. Mendrick advised those property owners to seek flood insurance before the new maps kick in and rates increase.
▪ Along the Port Royal Sound, a line of Port Royal Plantation homes sits along a bluff, elevated higher than many other island properties, yet the current maps place these properties in a flood zone. The new maps show these homes entirely removed from the flood zone.
▪ Most Sea Pines homes could see base flood elevation levels of 4 to 5 feet less compared to the current maps.
The town’s building code requires that new homes be built 1 foot above the required elevation, though town officials might consider increasing it so that the new maps don’t encourage risky construction practices, Mendrick said, adding that any final decisions will depend on how other Beaufort County communities handle the change.
In 1986, Bluffton was a drive-by town people passed on their way to Hilton Head. Gated communities such as Belfair and Berkeley Hall were swaths of swamp and woodlands. It wasn’t until 2009 that the town of Bluffton had its own building department to manage permits and enforce building codes. In its nine years of existence, the department has approved more than 4,000 single-family dwellings.
One thing that hasn’t changed since 1986: the town’s flood maps, which show about 5 percent of town land lying in the high-risk flood zone.
Bluffton’s new flood maps show even fewer properties, roughly 3 percent, lying in that zone, said Spruce, the town’s floodplain manager.
There is always the possibility of flooding when you live in a region called the Lowcountry
town of Bluffton floodplain manager Richard Spruce
Like Hilton Head, many Bluffton properties will see a significant decrease in base flood elevation, Spruce said. Homes that required elevation at 14 feet are generally being reduced to 9 feet.
▪ There are no major zone changes to Bluffton’s historic district.
▪ The few areas that show a shift from the low-risk flood zone into the high-risk zone are in Palmetto Bluff near the Palmetto Bluff Equestrian Center. But few, if any, properties are built there because the area is primarily open space and marshland, Spruce said.
▪ Individual lots within subdivisions might have entered or exited the flood zone, but Spruce declined to release more details. “They will have to be notified one at a time; or when we have the community meetings, we can answer more specific questions for homeowners,” he said.
The town’s building code requires new homes be built 1 foot above the required elevation.
Base flood elevations are also dropping in Beaufort with the new maps, according to city floodplain manager Bruce Skipper.
The majority of homes will receive a reduced elevation level, and a small handful of homes would move out of the high-risk zone.
“They’re that lucky bunch,” Skipper said.
Other areas within city limits show:
▪ The current 13-foot elevation level in the West Royal Oak, First Boulevard and Jane Way area could drop to 8 feet with the new maps, despite flooding there in recent years.
▪ Marshside homes in the Pigeon Point area have a 13-foot elevation level, which could drop to 9 feet.
▪ The Cottage Farm area properties have a 13-foot elevation level, which could drop to 9 feet or out of the high-risk flood zone.
▪ The Historic Point area, known locally as the Point, has elevation levels of 13 or 14 feet, which could drop to 8 or 9 feet.
Port Royal’s new maps follow similar trends countywide.
Base flood elevations would be reduced across the board, said Linda Bridges, who works in the town’s planning department. In general, 13- and 14-foot elevations would be set at 9 feet.
Bridges said she hasn’t found any areas moving from the low-risk flood zone into the high-risk zone, but identified many neighborhoods moving in the opposite direction.
▪ Much of the Picket Fences subdivision would move out of the high-risk zone.
▪ Some of the Shadow Moss subdivision, north of Robert Smalls Parkway, and part of downtown Port Royal would move out of the high-risk zone.
Unincorporated Beaufort County
Overall, much of the unincorporated property throughout the county shows a decrease in base flood elevation with the new maps, said county floodplain manger Hakim Bayyoud.
“That’s good,” he said. “It means you dramatically already comply.”
▪ Some of the Habersham area with a 14-foot elevation level would be set at 9 feet.
▪ Some of Fripp Island would change from an elevation of 16 feet to 13 feet.
▪ Some of Olde Church Road on St. Helena Island with a 13-foot elevation level would be set at 10 or 11 feet.
“This is all subject to change,” Bayyoud said, explaining that the long process before flood maps take effect means property owners should not take too much stock into what the new maps show.
Long wait for final maps
Homeowners should expect at least an 18-month wait for the preliminary maps to take effect and any savings on insurance premiums to kick in, according to floodplain officials.
And that projected timeline would come after FEMA, in conjunction with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, schedules the first public meetings on the new maps.
Two dates have been set for late November, Bayyoud said.
Mark your calendars: The two flood map meetings are Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 at USCB’s Bluffton campus.
Following the public meetings where residents can ask questions, the county and municipalities have 90 days to file appeals, which can delay the process.
That was the case with Horry County, which filed three appeals to FEMA, after officials there noticed that hundreds of properties, many in locations that hadn’t previously flooded, were being added to high-risk flood zones. The county received its preliminary maps in September 2015 and, following a string of appeals, will likely have new maps sometime in 2018, county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said.
Spruce, with the town of Bluffton, said he hasn’t seen anything so far in his analysis of the new maps that would warrant an appeal. Hilton Head has not yet decided if the town will appeal, Mendrick, the town’s floodplain manager, said.
After the appeals period passes, FEMA has three months to respond and, from there, the county has a six-month compliance period to pass permits.
Only then will any insurance policy changes — and premium savings — would take effect, a timeline that puts Beaufort County’s maps taking effect sometime in 2019, officials said.
For Schwartz, the Hilton Head Plantation resident whose home could move out of the high-risk flood zone with the new maps, the memory of Hurricane Matthew is still raw.
“I’m keeping my insurance,” he said. “I may save some money, but it’s not really going to change my attitude at all. I’m still at risk.”
Learn the lingo
▪ AE zone: Highest-risk flood zone where homes with a federally-backed mortgage are required to buy flood insurance. Properties in this zone typically have a number listed afterward to indicate a home’s base flood elevation such as AE9 (termed A zone on current maps).
▪ X zone: Outside of the floodplain where flood insurance, though encouraged, is not required (termed B and C zones on current maps).
▪ VE zone: Part of the A zone, but a special terminology for waterfront property that faces not just a flood risk, but also wind and wave action.
▪ Vertical datum: One foot of the difference in base flood elevation level is because of a change in vertical measurement. This means, for example, a home previously surveyed at 14 feet would be surveyed at 13 feet using the new vertical datum. This change has been applied to all of FEMA’s new flood maps.
▪ NFIP: National Flood Insurance program, run by FEMA, which provides flood insurance to property owners.
▪ Base flood elevation: Level at which new properties must be built. A one-foot vertical datum change on the new maps means a home surveyed at a specific elevation level will be surveyed 1 foot lower. For example, a home previously surveyed at 14 feet, would be surveyed at 13 feet.
Where to learn more about how your home is affected:
FEMA, S.C. DNR and local representatives will be available to answer questions and look up your property’s zone on both the old and new maps at two public meetings: 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 29 and Nov. 30, University of South Carolina Beaufort’s Hargray building, 1 University Blvd., Bluffton.