Even though it’s been more than a month since record flooding swamped South Carolina, the state doesn’t know how much the damage to roads, bridges, and dams will cost taxpayers. SCDOT Secretary Christy Hall told the SCDOT Commission, “I’m expecting that it’s probably going to be Thanksgiving or later before I’m able to come before you with a number.”
But it’s clear that the cost will be hundreds of millions of dollars. The Federal Highway Administration and FEMA will pick up a lot of that, she says. For roads that qualify, the federal government will pay 75 percent. But that still leaves the state to come up with the 25 percent state match, and the state will have to pay to repair the roads and bridges that don’t qualify for federal aid.
State road and bridge closures are down from 541, the highest point after the flooding, to 80 as of Nov. 11. The SCDOT website lists anticipated opening dates for some of the roads and bridges that are still closed, but some are listed as “undetermined,” while the agency knows some won’t re-open until next spring at the earliest.
SCDOT chief engineer of operations Andrew Leaphart says the damage to roads and bridges was not caused, or made worse, by so many of the state’s roads already being in poor condition when the floods hit. “We couldn’t prepare for this,” he says. “We would not build to a standard that could withstand a thousand-year flood.”
It will be up to state lawmakers to decide where the state will get the money it needs to repair roads and bridges. A group of mayors from across the state is calling on lawmakers to raise the gas tax to bring in more money, since the SCDOT already needed an estimated $1.5 billion more per year to bring roads and bridges up to “good” condition. The federal money to repair roads and bridges can be used only to repair what was damaged, not improve the roads to a higher level than they were before the floods. So if, for example, a 100-foot section of road washed out during the flooding, but two miles of that road already needed to be upgraded, the feds would pay to fix only that 100-foot section, not the entire two miles.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control, which inspects and regulates dams in the state, says 36 dams failed during the flooding, almost half of those in Richland County. Elizabeth Powers’ home in Columbia was flooded when a dam on Lake Katherine gave way. “It never occurred to me to worry about it. I just assumed we were all safe. My mistake,” she says.
DHEC says all but two of the dams that failed are privately owned, which means the owners of the dams will have to pay to repair them, not taxpayers. One of the two is on Fort Jackson, so the Army will be responsible for that one, while the Town of Lexington owns the other public dam that failed.
DHEC has been criticized for its dam inspections and regulations, spending just $260,000 last year on the program. By comparison, North Carolina spent ten times that much. A study by engineers from Clemson and Georgia Tech found that some of the state’s dams were deficient when the floods hit, which may have contributed to their failure.
DHEC says it has hired an international engineering firm to review its program and will work with state lawmakers to improve it. Powers, who says she was told when she bought her home that she didn’t even need flood insurance, says she hopes dams will be rebuilt to stricter standards. “I hope this will never happen ever to anyone again,” she says.