Under Water: The True Cost of Hurricane Joaquin

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There were flood warnings for her area, but Janie Dunn had no idea just how high the waters would get when Hurricane Joaquin and its bands of rain rolled through Andrews, SC. The deluge of rain and subsequent wall of water that raced down the Black River ultimately led to five and a half feet of water in the building that houses their business, Spiral Fittings, a manufacturer of sheet metal products for air conditioning and heating. The water level rose so fast, Dunn says, that when they realized the flooding had reached their building and they went to try to salvage as much as they could, the water was up to their knees. A couple hours later, it was above their waist—and they salvaged practically nothing.

It’s a story that is echoed throughout the state after the hurricane dumped a record amount of rain in areas that were caught off guard and ill-prepared. Columbia and its surrounding communities received more than two feet of rain in a 48-hour period, while some cities along the coast saw as much as three feet. Now, South Carolina is looking at a long-term recovery that experts say will take at least two years, both physically and economically.

Small Business Recovery Plan

Following President Obama’s disaster declaration for the state, the U.S. Small Business Administration began offering homeowners and business owners the opportunity to apply for Physical Disaster Loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Both of these loan programs offer low interest rates for up to 30 years—as low as four percent for businesses, 2.625 percent for non profits and 1.875 percent for homeowners. The deadline to apply for physical disaster passed in December, but victims could still apply for economic injury through Jan 4.

“The local SBA district offices in Columbia, our resource partners at the Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Center and SCORE Chapter are fully engaged in working with affected businesses as they recover,” said SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet. “We have a lot of work ahead of us in the days, weeks and months to follow, but SBA will be here as long as it takes to help South Carolina recover and rebuild.”
In mid-November, the SBA announced they had approved more than $50 million in disaster loans to 1,707 businesses and homeowners. Mark and Janie Dunn, however, are not among that number. They considered applying for an SBA loan, but they were able to get a loan from their local bank at a lower rate of 3 percent, so Janie says the federal government hasn’t really been of much help to them so far.

Still, the Dunn’s are now heavily involved in cleaning the warehouse and repairing equipment; they expect those repairs to take up to two years and several hundred thousand dollars before everything will be complete. It will take longer to repair, obviously, than it would to buy brand new equipment, but Dunn says it would cost more than $1 million if they bought new equipment—equipment that includes two 400-ton presses and three sets of circumference welders. Much of the company’s finished product waiting for shipment had to be thrown away because it was developing white rust from being under water. Even shipping supplies were lost—more than $30,000 in cardboard boxes were destroyed. She says they were fortunate, however, in that their home was not affected, nor were the homes of their 15 employees. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently estimated home restoration costs around $140 million for the state, and FEMA tacked on another $67 million in individual costs.)

“Our employees were all working as soon as we could get into our building,” Dunn says. “They jumped in and started helping us with the recovery process, cleaning and getting rid of mud. It’s just been a mess.”

Georgetown, South Carolina

About 18 miles down the road in Georgetown, residents and business owners were seeing a similar picture. Brian Tucker, director of economic development for Georgetown County, says Front Street in the historic downtown had significant flood damage. The water began to drop, but then steadily rose again, he says, as water from upstream washed through.

“Several property owners got hit pretty bad multiple times during the first week,” Tucker says. “Some spots averaged six to 10 inches while others had up to three feet of water.”

Georgetown’s Front Street is no stranger to disaster. On September 25, 2013, the area had a devastating fire that destroyed eight buildings. The remnants of the fire are long gone, and in its place at the moment is just empty land, Tucker says, while the new owner determines what to build.

Tucker says it’s too soon to say at this point how much the flood will cost the county in the long run, but to expect physical repairs to take as long as 18 months to two years.

Infrastructure and Agriculture

When the Governor spoke to the state in her December 1, 2015 address, she noted that federal assistance for road repairs had been approved, costing approximately $70 million, with another $37 million being provided from public assistance. Still, many roads do not qualify for that assistance, and another $28 million would be required for them.

Prior to that, in a statement released November 9, the S.C. Department of Transportation reported a peak of 541 state road closures in the days following the flooding. As of mid-November, that number had dropped 85 percent to 80 road closures. The department employed an additional 23 highway/bridge contractors to assist in emergency repairs. And a whopping 69,468 cubic yards of debris had been collected to date.

In the City of Columbia, almost 400 homes and 60 businesses were damaged, totalling nearly $65 million in damages so far, although authorities told the House Ways and Means Committee in November that those numbers would continue to rise as more damages were discovered. At that time, the committee was informed that $411,000 had been spent on debris removal in the Columbia area alone, and $11.5 million on emergency protection measures, which included repairing the Columbia Canal.

At that same meeting, representatives from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, USDA and Farm Service Agency informed the committee that farmers had lost more than $329 million crops in the field, and another $46 million crops that were prevented from being planted due to damaged fields. These totals include peanuts, cotton, wheat and soybeans.

“While the money does need to go to the farmer, it will end up being the support for our local communities, as we spread it to all the local businesses like we have done for so many years,” says Jeremy Cannon, a farmer in Clarendon County who grows tobacco, cotton, corn and soybeans. “To me it’s not my job. It’s my heritage, my family, my life and now its future is in the balance, hoping for someone to throw out a lifeline.”

Still, farmland is not the only natural resource that has been affected by Joaquin’s waters. In the Lowcountry, engineers will be expediting the process of renovations to the beach prior to warm weather season—another $28 million charge.

Better Preparedness

Scott Whelchel, area manager and business consultant with the Clemson South Carolina Small Business Development Center, says business owners should sit down and write out a disaster plan as part of the preparation for such a level of catastrophe.

“We have short memories and it’s amazing how quickly people will assume ‘Well, that’s not going to happen because it didn’t happen last time,’” Whelchel says. For this plan, businesses can start by collecting contact info on all their employees, inventory assets and equipment, and know what you’re going to lose if you lose everything.

Tucker agrees, adding that if you don’t have flood insurance, now is the time to get it, whether you think you need it or not.

“I’m spreading the same message now that we delivered after the fire—make sure all your assets are properly insured,” Tucker says. “That includes flood insurance, fire and property. We have a number of folks who were either uninsured or underinsured. I can’t stress it enough.”

The Dunns did not have flood insurance on their property, which is located one and a half miles from the Black River. When they first purchased the property in 1998, it was not considered to be in a flood zone, but in 2008 a new zoning survey determined they were in an A1 flood zone. An A1 zone means the area could expect a flood every 100 years. Dunn says she is shopping around now for flood insurance, as it’s a safe bet that this could occur again in her lifetime. In the meantime, they’re holding steady and continuing work as usual.

“I think we’re very resilient,” Dunn says. “We know how to work hard and that’s what we’re doing.”

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