South Carolina Residents Wonder Who Will Pay to Fix Flood Damage

Two weeks ago, South Carolina’s floods sent 6 feet of water into Walt Oliver’s home. Now, after volunteers helped gut the ruined plaster, carpeting, duct work and hardwood floors, it’s “down to studs and subfloors,” he said.

Like most residents of the hard-hit Columbia area, Oliver did not have flood insurance. He has applied for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a FEMA inspector has been out to take a look at his home. He said the inspector told him he will get a letter in 10-12 days outlining what the next steps are that he will have to take to get any financial aid to help him rebuild.

In the meantime, he is staying with friends, and waiting.

In Richland County, at the state’s landlocked center and among the hardest-hit by the flooding, there are only about 1,500 National Flood Insurance Program policies in effect. Lexington County, directly to the west, has about 2,000.

On Thursday afternoon, Jean Briggs, 64, was at a FEMA center on Columbia’s eastern edge to file a claim after the flooding damaged her home’s basement. According to FEMA, about 52,000 people across the state have applied for aid. About 2,800 have visited a FEMA center, including 119 in Richland County through Thursday.

Briggs said she had no idea she might need flood insurance because she lives nowhere near any bodies of water.

“They tell me I may have about $3,500 worth of damage, so I’m here to make a claim now,” she said.

As of July 31, there were nearly 200,000 federal flood insurance policies in effect statewide, but the vast majority of them are in coastal counties where flooding is a more routine occurrence.

In coastal areas, or neighborhoods abutting a major waterway like the Congaree River, which skirts downtown Columbia’s western edge, mortgage lenders require homeowners to carry flood insurance, said Russ Dubisky, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service. Few voluntarily buy the policies otherwise.

“A lot of the folks who do not have flood insurance are the folks who are either not required by their lender, or they are not in a flood hazard area, and they decide, the risk is low here, maybe I should just go without,” Dubisky said.

Liza Sansbury, 35, another Columbia resident, said she and her husband voluntarily bought a small private flood insurance policy, thinking the only damage they might face to their single-story, 1950s home might be from water entering a low crawl space.

Instead, so much water from swollen Lake Katherine poured into her home that the mother of two floated to a neighbor’s house by hugging onto a cooler during the height of the Oct. 4 storms. Sansbury said an adjuster estimated they had about $250,000 in damage – but their policy covers only about a quarter of that. The $2,100 they’ve gotten from FEMA to help with rent will only cover about two months.

“I just don’t know where we will go from here,” she said.

For many, the issue may end up in court. Robert Rikard, a Columbia attorney who handles bad faith insurance litigation, said his office has fielded calls from people trying to figure out how to repair their homes with either no flood insurance or not enough of it.

Some, Rikard said, have a provision allowing them to claim damage caused by a named storm, like Hurricane Joaquin, which churned off South Carolina’s coast and fueled what experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called a “fire hose” of tropical moisture aimed directly at the state.

However, some insurers are telling people the flooding was caused simply by rain, not Joaquin, Rikard said. “So there’s going to be litigation over whether or not, for those people, did Joaquin cause the rain that caused the floods that caused the damage?”

(Bruce Smith contributed to this report from Charleston, South Carolina.)