Keith Gray bought his downtown Charleston home on Michel Place in 1989. He’s seen it flood three times in the last five years. Across the narrow alley, Gray’s neighbor Robert Vanderwege has flooded three times as well.
The 2015 “flood of the century” was the first time since Hugo that water crept into Gray’s home: 3 inches, he said. In 2016: 9 inches of water. In 2017: 19 inches.
Three years ago, Gray and Vanderwege applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for grant money so they could lift their homes eight feet above the ground. On Tuesday, Charleston City Council members signed off on a grant application seeking $893,115.75 from FEMA to lift another five homes — four downtown and one on James Island. That application will go to FEMA later this month.
Gray said he has to keep his home the way it is now until the grant money is approved. That means about 19 inches of wallboard and insulation above the floor isn’t there, and much of his downstairs looks like it’s ready for another flood. His piano is lifted on five-gallon buckets, and treasured furniture is kept upstairs.
“It’s not a home,” Gray said. “It’s a place for my clothes upstairs and where I stay.”
At Vanderwege’s home, plastic storage containers are stacked on top of each other, reaching almost the ceiling. The kitchen is loosely put together, cabinets aren’t fixed to the wall so Vanderwege can easily stack them when the water comes again.
After the water recedes, a different routine kicks in. Using a piece of plastic as a marker, Vanderwege cuts about 18 inches of wallboard, remove insulation and start spraying bleach. As the water reaches about two inches above the floor, he’ll pour soap and begin swishing a mop across the floor. Then the fans come out to dry the inside of his walls.
He won’t nail in the kitchen baseboards — what’s the point when it will need replacing the next time there’s a bad storm?
Three years after seeking FEMA assistance through the city of Charleston, Gray and Vanderwege say they are “in limbo.”
FEMA wants more information about Gray’s and Vanderwege’s homes, a promising but not clear response that the money may be approved, City Floodplain Manager Stephen Julka said.
While Gray and Vanderwege hope for good news soon, the city will submit a grant application to FEMA to raise five more homes. Four homes are downtown — two on Trapman Street, one on Gadsden Street and one on Council Street — and another is on Preston Road on James Island.
Homes in the city’s historic district aren’t eligible to be demolished, and their only option is to build upwards.
The owner of the two Trapman Street homes, Wilson Rembold, could not be reached for comment; Laurie Kramer, the Gadsden Street homeowner, declined to comment; the Council Street homeowner, Robert Collins, could not be reached for comment; Gene McDermott, the Preston Road homeowner, declined to comment. The Charleston County Auditor’s website identified those four individuals as the property owners for the five homes that may be lifted.
Three of the five homes on the new application are considered severe repetitive loss and would be fully covered by a FEMA grant; one is considered a repetitive loss, Julka said, so that homeowner would receive 75 percent funding from FEMA and pay the remainder of its costs. The five homes included in the new application have an estimated collective budget of $893,115.75 to raise them.
While Vanderwege and Gray wait, they are hopeful.
“Some days I feel defeated, some days I feel jubilation, like, ‘It’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,'” Gray said.
Susan Lyons, who leads the grassroots Groundswell of Charleston, a group of homeowners whose properties have been repeatedly flood-damaged, said she doesn’t have any personal experience with the FEMA grant application process but has learned from others. She said it seems long and complicated.
“We need really good support from the city for those being marshaled through this process,” Lyons said. “It’s a system that is mired in bureaucracy, and because of so many flood events nationally, FEMA is taxed.”
More home demos expected
Last year, the city received FEMA funding to demolish homes that frequently flood — 32 in the Shadowmoss neighborhood of West Ashley — and city staff learned this week that FEMA approved funding for the city to purchase another nine homes: seven in Shadowmoss and two in the Willow Walk neighborhood on James Island.
In the grant application going to FEMA later this month, City Council is also looking to purchase two more homes in West Ashley: one in Shadowmoss and one in East Oak Forest. Under federal privacy law, the city cannot identify the homes on those applications.
While FEMA considers the grants, city staffers are working on ways to help lower income homeowners see flooding relief, as well. City Councilman Robert Mitchell asked city staff this week to research how Community Development Block Grants can be used, and if they can cover some costs for homeowners. Julka said there’s some discussion about setting up a fund and a no-interest loan program for homeowners to pay back the city over time.
“We’re still working with our legal and finance people in terms of what that would look like,” Julka said.
At the same time, city staffers continue to chip away at flood issues citywide. Under the 2020 budget, $1 million has been set aside for small, neighborhood drainage projects. Work on the Low Battery heightening project continues with pilings being drilled into the ground over the coming weeks.
This week, City Council approved the findings of the Dutch Dialogues report as a guiding document to address the city’s flooding. Dutch Dialogues — a research and design program that started in the United States after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005 — creates a holistic strategy for how governments should deal with rising seas and flooding, and embrace water instead of trying to build against it.
Later this month, the City Council will also hold a public hearing on the new stormwater manual improvements.