South Carolina has experienced four hurricane and tropical storm-related catastrophic flood events since October 2015, and this threat is unlikely to decrease. The S.C. Floodwater Commission, created by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster in 2018, will review a number of proposals to deter flooding as part of its mission. Governor McMaster describes the commission as being unique in the United States, saying, “Its scope will be global, to be applied here.”
Since the commission’s creation this past fall, the organization is proving to be just that: unique. And it is perhaps the most aggressive project ever aimed at developing real solutions to the Palmetto State’s floodwater threat that has been a recurrent problem since the “thousand year flood.” That event stemmed from Hurricane Joaquin, which stalled in its northerly track in the Atlantic. It then interacted with both a cold front moving offshore from the North American continent and a low-pressure system, which developed over the southeastern United States. The result was a worst-case “perfect storm” as both North and South Carolina were deluged with record-producing rainfall. While dams broke and bridges collapsed, roads and highways, homes, and businesses were literally washed away. Statewide 19 people were killed, and property losses exceeded $1.5 billion.
“In Columbia, even if your home or business was not directly hit by the flooding, the destruction from the flooding was happening all around you,” says Col. Steve Vitali, a retired U.S. Marine Corps infantry and logistics officer who serves as operations officer for the Floodwater Commission’s national security task force, one of 10 named task forces or subcommittees.
Energy and environmental attorney Tom Mullikin, a noted global expedition leader and former commander of the S.C. State Guard appointed by Governor McMaster to chair the S.C. Floodwater Commission in October 2018, agrees. “Compounding the problem was the fact that before we could finish picking up the pieces of Joaquin, we were hit by Hurricane Matthew the following year, then Irma in 2017, followed by Florence in 2018,” says Tom. “What we have experienced here in South Carolina was frankly unfathomable, which is why the governor established this commission and directed that we find creative, quick solutions to mitigate the effects of severe flooding across the state.”
Recently retired South Carolina Adjutant General Bob Livingston, also a retired major general with the S.C. Army National Guard, says that the S.C. Floodwater Commission is different from other organizations nationwide tasked with mitigating the impacts of widespread flooding.
“This commission is unique in that it is taking a cooperative, comprehensive, and holistic approach to the problem,” says Bob. “So many times with government and quasi-governmental approaches, everybody is doing their own thing and operating in their own lanes, but often it’s not very well coordinated. The governor’s goal is to make this commission an interagency, intergovernmental body tied to non-governmental entities with everyone working together instead of in their own silos.” Bob chairs the smart river and dam security task force and serves on the task forces for grid security and national security.
Col. Bill Connor, a U.S. Army Reserve infantry officer and Orangeburg attorney, chairs the national security task force, bringing years of military experience to the position. “Meeting our state’s floodwater threats and reducing the damage flooding can inflict is not unlike the preparation that goes into any military operation aimed at confronting any threat,” says Bill, a former senior U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan. “My primary job as task force chairman is to keep everyone on the task force focused on, and progressing in, our given mission of identifying potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with flooding events as they affect the many U.S. military bases and National Guard installations statewide, primarily those located along our 187 miles of coastline.”
Bill and Steve are both responsible for gathering information from military installation commanders and emergency managers and then determining the impact to the adjacent communities that serve those bases. “Ultimately, we make recommendations to the S.C. Floodwater Commission chairman and the governor on how best to prepare for and minimize those risks,” says Bill.
According to Bob, the S.C. Floodwater Commission will potentially connect emergency preparedness efforts to new business and economic development. “Take for instance, the future interstate going into Myrtle Beach,” he says. “That will be a great economic boon for Myrtle Beach and for the areas along the interstate leading into Myrtle Beach. It will also provide the state with an elevated highway by simply keeping it out of the floodplain — in some places that will mean a bridge, in others it might be a causeway, and in still others, no elevation will be necessary because that specific stretch is not within the floodplain. This highway will also help with ease-of-evacuation as well as access for emergency responders. It will prevent Myrtle Beach from being cut off and isolated in a disastrous flood event.”
Bob believes that additional emergency management and economic development partnerships might include the construction of large floodwater-controlling reservoirs that could also be used for recreational benefit.
Among the various floodwater mitigation proposals under discussion is an offshore artificial reef system, which would be engineered to reduce incoming waves and serve as environmentally sound and aesthetically unseen buffers against storms and flooding.
The commission is also exploring new approaches to improve the existing electrical grid and other key infrastructures. A flood-buffering living shoreline proposal is in the conception stages. And the infrastructure and shoreline armoring task force is busy identifying statewide culverts, ditches, and other existing water drainage and flow infrastructure in need of maintenance and enhancement.
“We are generating the right discussions,” says Bob. “How do we get everybody to work together so that we maximize what we are able to do, and then maybe find other ways of funding it that are not just the South Carolina tax base? Within these discussions we are seeing a tremendous amount of experienced-based overlap from one task force to the next.”
Steve, who oversaw several large-scale deployment logistics and engineering projects and commanded a regimental-sized U.S. advisory group and Afghan army force in Afghanistan, says that this “experience-based overlap,” which is essentially all of the thought-leaders putting their heads together and determining ways to fix problems for one particular task force which might also benefit another, is key to the success of any high-stakes effort, like that of the commission.
“With the Floodwater Commission, we’re benefiting from good discussions and the sharing of information between all 10 task forces, which is why I believe we will also see an increasing number of creative and innovative solutions to the problem of flooding and how we ultimately make water work for us,” says Bob.
In the forming of the S.C. Floodwater Commission, Tom says he sought out the very best minds: emergency management and disaster preparedness professionals, engineers, university professors, senior-ranking military officers, legislators, mayors, meteorological gurus, and logistical experts, all of whom have been tasked with determining the best paths forward in their given lanes and areas of expertise.
The S.C. Floodwater Commission is not waiting to respond to the next catastrophic flood event. The consensus among all commissioners is that the S.C. Floodwater Commission’s work is critically time-sensitive. “We are literally racing against the clock,” says Steve.
It is not because the commission has been given unyielding deadlines from the top, though it has, but that the commissioners all realize that when the proverbial levee breaks, it is too late.
“What we are trying to do is get in front of emergencies,” explains Bob. “We want to be in control of our destinies. Our environment is always changing. We can argue about what causes those environmental changes, but it is changing, and recent trends have been toward more water. So being able to get out in front of that water, controlling that water, even taking advantage of that water is really what the S.C. Floodwater Commission is doing.”