David Cunningham bought his Lawson’s Landing home with the expectation that he would never leave.
He didn’t know how right he was.
“We’re stuck,” said the retired paramedic, who moved into the three-bedroom house just weeks before Hurricane Florence hit in 2018, sending four feet of water inside. “There’s no way out for me.”
For flood victims in Horry County’s most vulnerable low spots, there are few good options. Selling their property means passing the risk on to someone else, while restoring it continues the same cycle: flood, clean up, rebuild, flood again. Folks like Cunningham have invested so much that even if they could sell their homes, they couldn’t afford to take a hit on the price.
That dilemma is why county officials made a buyout program a central component of their $30 million request for flood mitigation and resiliency funding. They submitted their proposal to the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office on July 31.
Although some plans for the money include stormwater infrastructure projects, the county hopes to use $17.7 million for buyouts, which allow the government to purchase properties that have repeatedly flooded. Those homeowners then move, their former houses are razed and the land is not allowed to hold housing again.
So apart from a buyout program, what else does Horry County want to do with the $30 million …
“We know that they’ve been hurt the most and the most consistently,” said Courtney Frappaolo, Horry County Government’s director of community development. “Probability shows that they’re going to be hit again. We’re working diligently to help folks get out of harm’s way.”
The county’s proposed program would target specific communities, including several neighborhoods in Socastee such as Rosewood and Lawson’s Landing.
Funding for the program would have multiple purposes: buying the land, covering demolition costs, providing moving bonuses for qualified homeowners and relocating renters.
If this program is approved, the county could acquire 50 parcels.
“It’s some place we can start,” said Horry County Councilman Cam Crawford, who represents the Socastee area and saw his own home flood after Florence. “We can start to relocate people in some of these extremely vulnerable areas. That’s hopeful to me.”
Homes that are not elevated — such as Cunningham’s in Lawson’s Landing — would benefit the most from such a program, Crawford said.
“Those are extremely vulnerable because they’re on a slab, they’re not raised,” he said. “To me, to me that’s what the focus of the buyout or the relocation program is.”
In the spring, county officials asked those considering a buyout to complete an interest form so the county could use that information in pursuing state and federal funding.
So far, the county has received more than 100 of those forms.
There’s also a separate buyout program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that county officials are seeking to help an additional 20 homeowners who don’t qualify for the state program, which has limits based on pre-storm property values. Proposals for the FEMA buyout program are due in late January.
Frappaolo said the county is trying to layer both programs to help as many homeowners as possible. Nearly 2,000 Horry County properties suffered damage during Florence. The list includes many that saw flooding after Hurricane Joaquin in 2015 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Some of those structures have already been torn down, while others have been elevated, including multiple Socastee homes that were assisted by the nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse.
For those still holding on, the buyout program represents hope that they can escape a frustrating pattern.
“They can’t afford it,” said Tabatha Randall, who lives in the hard-hit Rosewood community. “They can’t keep putting money into something that the water just comes back through and it ruins it.”
Initially, county leaders hoped to request the flood resiliency money from the state in the spring with funding becoming available this fall.
The COVID-19 crisis delayed the process, but officials remain optimistic that they can receive an answer in the coming months.
If the proposal is funded, then residents can then begin applying. Eligibility criteria would include household income, extent of damage and location. Once someone is accepted into a buyout program, the process can take on average six months to a year to complete.
Cunningham submitted his paperwork early.
After retiring from Georgetown County, he wanted to move somewhere secluded, a place where he could spend his golden years near nature.
When he looked at the house around the corner from the Intracoastal Waterway, he liked the lush backyard and thick woods.
“My paradise,” he called it.
Before he bought the house, he was notified that the home had experienced some water damage but it had been professionally repaired. He assumed it was a leaky roof or perhaps a plumbing mishap.
He didn’t buy flood insurance because he wasn’t required to have it. No one told him about the neighborhood’s history.
When Florence struck, he wasn’t concerned until he noticed his neighbors loading their possessions into U-Hauls.
“We’re like, ‘Where the hell is everybody going?’” he said. “That’s when one of the neighbors pulled us aside.”
They knew what was coming.
So Cunningham removed his furniture, but he boxed up the family’s birth certificates, Army records, high school diplomas and baby photos. He placed those items on a shelf where he thought they’d be safe from the rising water.
Unfortunately, the floodwater caused the house’s walls to buckle and he found his important documents floating.
“When I say we lost everything, we lost everything,” he said.
With no flood insurance, he ran through his savings and took out a $25,000 loan just to make the house livable again.
“I’m essentially up the creek without a paddle,” he said. “It’s a living nightmare.”
He considered selling the house and found some interest, but he insisted that the home’s history be disclosed.
“I told my Realtors, ‘In no way, shape or form are you to blow smoke up people’s behinds. Tell them the truth,’” he said. “And when people find out that it flooded and there’s a flood history, they want nothing to do with it.”
Other Horry County homeowners have also inquired about a buyout program.
Randall moved from North Carolina to the Rosewood community in the spring of 2018.
Her home is elevated, but Florence’s floodwater still came within a foot of it. The water damaged the family’s air conditioning unit, took out their privacy fence and left a trashy mess after it finally receded weeks later.
Randall and her husband had bought the home with plans of raising their young son there. They wanted to be near the waterway, and they dreamed of hosting friends on their patio around a fire pit.
“This was supposed to be a forever home for us,” she said.
She had researched the property and knew the floodwater had come up a few feet after Matthew, but she assumed that was a rare occurrence.
Florence left seven feet of water beneath her home. And after heavy rains in February, she had two feet of water below it. She worried about the bacteria levels in the murky flow.
“It was so brown and stunk so bad,” she said. “You couldn’t even walk through the yard it was so bad. … There’s just so many things you have to worry about.”
The Randalls don’t want to spend money fixing up their property, installing a swimming pool or playground, for another flood to destroy it.
“We just want out of this neighborhood,” Tabatha Randall said. “It’s just been one problem after another.”
On the outside, the Cunningham home still has a welcoming feel: tan siding with a brick façade and a walkway accented with flower pots, a fountain and wind chimes.
A sign hanging in the living room says “Life’s better at the beach.”
But the backyard that drew David Cunningham in? The saturated woods now hold dying brush and fallen trees. There’s standing water in some parts.
“The water has not gone down,” he said. “It keeps coming up. … It smells like a swamp.”
The thought of another flood is a constant worry. Even storms that aren’t hurricanes have threatened his house with rising water. Abandoning the house would ruin his credit, making getting another mortgage difficult.
Without a buyout, he feels helpless.
“I have no recourse but to get out of this home,” he said. “I can’t sell it — nobody’s going to buy it — so I mean I’m really stuck. And to be honest with you, you can only repair something so many times. Next flood will be the fourth flood this house has been in.”