‘It’s like a death:’ What it’s like to leave one flood-prone community

Terri Straka explores her new home with her granddaughter Sophia Raymund in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Sept. 19. Straka is part of a buyout program to relocate Horry County residents away from flood prone areas. (Madeline Gray for The Washington Post)

SOCASTEE, S.C. — On the day she would finally move to higher ground, Terri Straka awoke in the neighborhood where she had lived for three decades, but a place steadily becoming less recognizable.

“No Trespassing” signs adorned the lawns of other flood-prone houses whose owners had already taken government buyouts. Storage pods sat in the driveways of neighbors who would soon follow. In one yard, a sign warned would-be house hunters, “Don’t buy in the swamp.”

“It’s like a death,” Straka, 52, said as she surveyed the two packed U-Haul trucks parked out front. “I didn’t have any intentions of leaving. This place is my heritage.”

The transformation unfolding in this one corner of South Carolina embodies the quandary that a growing number of communities around the nation face — and will face in the years ahead.

In this stretch of the Mid-Atlantic, waters are rising at among the fastest rates in the world — a U.S. government station in Myrtle Beach has recorded nearly 10 inches of sea level rise since the late 1950s, and the trend has accelerated in recent years. Add to that more intense hurricanes, torrential rainstorms, feverish development that alters water flow and other factors, and more and more communities like this one find themselves in the path of floodwaters.

Already, according to one seminal study that examined voluntary buyouts between 1989 and 2017, the government has paid for more than 43,000 buyouts of flood-prone properties across 49 states and more than 1,100 counties.

Those numbers are set to grow.

In places such as Socastee, where some residents were flooded not only during Hurricanes Joaquin in 2015, Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, but also during no-name storms and heavy rains, local officials eventually sought federal funding to help those who wanted to relocate, and to return the land to green space in perpetuity.

But even that effort has proven contentious and slow. For those who have sought buyouts, the hot housing market and soaring interest rates have made it difficult to find comparable places to move.

Other homeowners nearby have received state resilience money or help from nonprofit groups to elevate their homes and stay put. Others have rejected either option. Many residents, once assured they didn’t live in a high-risk area, now struggle to afford the rising cost of flood insurance.

The situation illustrates how there are seldom easy answers when it comes to dealing with homes that face repeated flooding, even as more places face the likelihood of such catastrophes in the years ahead.

Buyouts and home elevations can alter the character of communities, impact property values and sow division among neighbors. But the prospect of chronic flooding brings its own form of upheaval, mental anguish and financial strain.

For Straka, moving day brought a rush of emotions.

Among them was relief to be escaping her neighborhood perched along the Intracoastal Waterway — five miles inland from Myrtle Beach’s glittering oceanfront strip — where she and others had flooded again and again in recent years.

There was also sadness at leaving behind a community where her parents still lived and a home, now destined for demolition, where she had raised her three children and befriended other families.

But with each flood, and each tumultuous rebuilding that followed, it became harder for Straka to justify staying. “We can’t withstand it, financially or emotionally,” she said on the morning of her move. “Nothing is going to change. It’s only going to get worse.”

Sitting under a clear sky, with the morning sun glinting off the serene waterway nearby, she said she understood why many of her neighbors don’t want to endure the headaches that come with a buyout.

But she also believes that over time, climate change will leave some with little choice — that the storms will return, and the waters will rise again.

“I don’t think people are ready for it,” she said. “But it’s coming, and it’s going to get worse.”

‘This is unmanaged retreat’

In many ways, the affected neighborhoods of Socastee seem utterly normal — home to working-class families and retirees, the majority of whom live in modest, low-slung houses laid out along tidy suburban streets.

But it’s also clear here that flooding — the memory of it, the aftermath of it, the anticipation of it — has become an inescapable part of life.

On a recent morning, employees from a demolition company walked one street with clipboards, surveying houses that had undergone buyouts and would soon be torn down. Nearby, a man from the Horry County government was hanging fliers on certain homes to remind their owners that there was still time for people affected by “repetitive loss” flooding to seek a buyout.

“Funding is limited, and applications will be processed in the order they are received,” it read.

On some front porches, the faint water line from Hurricane Florence remains. Some residents continue to rebuild from the last time they flooded, as recently as last year. More than a few worry what their street will look like as more people leave, about the disruption demolitions will bring, about the police and firefighters who use now-empty houses for training exercises.

Rob Young views the situation in Socastee as a microcosm of the issues facing many communities — and of the uneven ways that governments often respond.

“It’s a great case study that exhibits several problems with how we handle human vulnerability and flooding in the United States,” said Young, a professor of geology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

Historically, he said, much of the money that the federal government allocates to protecting properties threatened by floods and rising seas has gravitated toward wealthier, waterfront areas with highly valued properties. These places tend to get the most protection, and they are often first in line for aid to rebuild.

Communities such as Socastee that often lie inland tend to receive far less funding to make them more resilient to disasters. More often, Young said, any financial relief tends to come later in the form of buyouts — and sometimes only after residents clamor for help.

“The system is pretty broken,” he said. “We tend to help them only after they have been wounded and damaged.”

Young believes county officials are trying their best to deal with an unenviable situation and give homeowners the ability to leave. But buyouts inevitably take a long time, don’t provide a systemic solution to flooding and impact those who remain.

“Some would look at that and say, ‘This is managed retreat.’ I look at it and I say, ‘This is unmanaged retreat, not managed retreat.’ There’s no long-term plan,” said Young, who last year worked with Horry County to alter its existing flood maps.

“When you have to do it this way, you have lasting injuries, both for the people who have been waiting years for a buyout, but also for the people who are left behind,” he said.

Socastee is hardly the first community to experiment with buyouts, nor will it be the last.

In Louisiana, residents of Isle de Jean Charles are among the first communities the federal government is working to resettle en mass in the face of rising seas. New Jersey has overseen buyouts of hundreds of properties since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Harris County in Texas has undertaken more than 800 buyouts since Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and approved 1,600 more. Many smaller communities have followed a similar path, though on a smaller scale.

As more people in more places face repeat flooding and potential displacement, the country must do more to prepare for what is coming and to treat different communities equitably, said Stephen Eisenman, co-founder of Anthropocene Alliance, a coalition of front-line communities experiencing the impacts of extreme weather and climate change.

One key change, said Harriet Festing, the group’s executive director, is for leaders to stop allowing construction in vulnerable areas, which threatens to put more people in harm’s way.

“There’s so much money going into development in flood-prone areas,” she said. “You see everywhere around you the exact opposite of what you know has to happen.”

‘Mother Nature is telling us something’

In October 2018, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) came to Starcreek Circle in Socastee to survey the devastating flooding that Hurricane Florence had inflicted.

“Mother Nature is telling us something, and we need to listen,” he told the collection of assembled homeowners. He urged those who had flooded repeatedly to consider leaving, and said government funding could help move them to higher ground.

Four years and more flooding later, the residents of Starcreek Circle have taken different paths in the wake of those pleas.

Some, such as Keith and Tyra Moore, are in the process of applying for a buyout. The couple rebuilt largely themselves after Florence forced three feet of water in the house. They replaced drywall and insulation, painted ceilings, installed new doors and windows.

They had hoped to raise their well-kept home and spend their retirement there. But after they learned that part of their property now sits in a floodway, they decided it was time to go. “We’re always just waiting for that next storm, that next flood,” Tyra said.

Keith jokes with friends and relatives about their predicament: “We used to live on the creek, then we were in the creek, and now we are up the creek.”

Meanwhile, their neighbors on either side have no plans to leave.

“We are going to take our chances with the flooding. We will just deal with it as it comes,” said Connie Wardien, who has lived with her husband, Wayne, for three decades in a home that has flooded twice since 2016, displacing them each time.

“We don’t think the buyouts are going to be worth our while, especially the way the market is now,” she said. She pointed to the pecan and pear trees they had planted, spoke of the children they had raised who still live nearby. “We have loved this place. … Where are we going to go?”

Jim and Gina Hudson feel much the same. His father built their two-story home in the 1990s, but they had to gut the first floor after Florence and were displaced for nearly nine months.

“This is our investment,” Jim, who is from Horry County, said one recent afternoon. “This is home.”

“We are just trusting the Lord that it won’t happen like that again,” Gina said, “and dealing with it if it does.”

Elizabeth Tranter, Horry County’s director of community development and grants, sees the buyout program as a lifeline to those who want it. “I view our job as providing an option to people who may not perceive they have many options,” she said.

Tranter said the series of bad storms in recent years left the community “just exhausted” from the constant threat of flooding. That reality, coupled with the fact that some residents held a public protest in 2020 to demand funding for buyouts, led officials to seek money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The county eventually was awarded money to buyout up to 61 properties, with an initial cap of $250,000 each. The buyout program opened for applications in July 2021. As of Friday, the county has acquired 29 homes, with eight more under contract. More applications are in the pipeline, Tranter said.

“Right now, I’m still seeing a great deal of interest,” she said. “I hope that some of the families who are seeking a new start are able to get that, and are able to locate to a place they feel comfortable.”

Linda and Jim Fraboni jumped at the chance for that new start. After flooding roughly a dozen times in their nearly 25 years on Starcreek Circle, the couple wanted out. But, Linda said, “We felt stuck.”

They refused to sell to an unsuspecting buyer — “You can’t do that to people,” Jim says — but disclosing the risks meant the house was virtually unsellable. When the buyout offer came, they applied and encouraged their daughter and son-in-law down the street to do the same.

The process took longer than expected, but the couple — now both retired — closed in June and left South Carolina behind. They now live on nearly 2 acres in Tennessee, surrounded by woods.

“It was a blessing for us,” Linda said on a recent fall day, as Hurricane Ian barreled toward South Carolina. If they were still in Socastee, she said, they would be frantically packing up keepsakes and bracing for another flood.

Instead, they were watching the autumn leaves change color.

“We don’t have to worry about it,” Linda said. “That burden isn’t there.”

‘We needed to move on’

By late afternoon, Terri Straka and a group of family members that included her two sons, her ex-husband and a nephew had unloaded the bulk of her possessions at her new house.

The two-story Cape Cod sat only several miles but a world away from her old neighborhood. It lay down a winding road, tucked amid towering pine trees. It had a big backyard, a front porch and a magnolia tree in front where she imagined her 5-year-old granddaughter playing.

Most importantly of all, there was little risk of flooding.

After vacuuming the baseboards, wiping down the windows and positioning her sofa in a spot by the brick fireplace, Straka headed outside for a break.

“You had no peace,” she said, recalling the angst in her old home each time a hurricane formed or a heavy rain would fall. “We needed to move on.”

Straka sat on the back of a half-empty U-Haul. The sun was sinking, and a breeze blew through the pines. Despite the work ahead, she already felt a weight lifting.

She nodded toward her sons, who were busy stacking boxes of clothes and Christmas ornaments in the garage. Nearby, her granddaughter was racing through the house, deciding which room would be hers when she visited.

“I loved my home. But home is where you feel safe and comfortable,” Straka said. “At least I know they are going to be safe here.”

Chris Mooney contributed to this report.

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