MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Climate change is putting coastal property and infrastructure at risk, and property owners are likely to bear the cost.
“I had to evacuate my home, and my whole entire community was inundated with floodwaters for, 10 to 14 days,” April O’Leary, the founder and president of Horry County Rising said.
O’Leary and 400 other Horry County families were forced out of their homes after catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Florence.
“I saw my beloved neighbors, who I adore, suffer,” she said. “Grown men crying, and just embracing me and just suffering, that really broke me.”
The damage caused by Hurricane Florence was estimated to cost around $24 billion, making it the 9th-most destructive in U.S. history. According to the National Climate Assessment, climate change is expected to have even more economic impacts.
“South Carolina has warmed about one-degree Fahrenheit over the past 120 years,” Hope Mizell, South Carolina’s state climatologist said. “This is less than the Earth as a whole, which is warmed by nearly two degrees.”
Mizell said the state has seen an increase in extreme rainfall. Four of the top 10 wettest years on record have happened since 2013. Flooding is a big concern with warming temperatures.
“We see there are impacts to towns, cities, homes, businesses, infrastructure at the low elevations,” Mizell said. “They’re certainly more vulnerable to the impacts of sea-level rise, and inland flooding as well.”
That’s why O’Leary started Horry County Rising, a grassroots group working to mitigate and adapt to flooding.
“We’re going to flood no matter what,” O’Leary said. “We can’t change that, but we can make sure when we do flood it’s not a catastrophic event.”
According to the National Climate Assessment, $1 trillion worth of coastal real estate and more than 60,000 miles of roads and bridges in coastal floodplains are already vulnerable to extreme storms and hurricanes that lead to billions in repair costs.
“We also have a very aging stormwater infrastructure,” O’Leary said. “A lot of the infrastructure was designed in the 50s and 60s for much smaller rainfall.”
The cost to upgrade the nation’s wastewater and stormwater systems is nearly $300 billion over the next 20 years.
A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, focuses on coastal adaptation. She said adapting to climate change calls for not building in flood-prone areas and improving existing and new infrastructure.
“We wait until after the damage to start thinking about how we’re going to rebuild, and instead we need to start thinking about adaptation more at the planning level, the initial level, like the decision to build that new development, the decision to put in that new infrastructure,” Siders said. “Where do you put the new school, right? Are you gonna build the new school in the flood-prone area? Are you gonna build it on the dry side of town?”
The continual impacts of warming temperatures hinge on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2020, South Carolina’s four nuclear power plants supplied 55% of the state’s total electricity, and the state was the third-largest producer of nuclear power in the country.
South Carolina ranks 27th in the nation for its carbon emissions, leading energy companies like Santee Cooper to work to lower their carbon footprint
“Into the 2030s, we predict we’ll reduce our carbon emissions by about 55%,” Santee Cooper spokeswoman Tracy Vreeland said.
To accomplish that, Santee Cooper plans to close its Winyah Bay plant in Georgetown by 2028 — leaving only one working coal plant — and invest more in renewable energies.
“Last year, we contracted 425 megawatts of solar, and next decade, we plan to add another thousand megawatts of solar and 200 megawatts of battery storage,” Vreeland said.
To put that into perspective, it would power more than 253,650 homes.
Duke Energy could not accommodate an on-camera interview but sent News13 information on its clean-energy plan. The company plans to have less than 5% of its energy from coal by 2030 and fully exit coal by 2035, with an ultimate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Experts like Mizell said it’s time to act now.
“When you talk about climate change, there’s uncertainty in the scale, the timing, the location of the climate change impacts,” Mizell said. “Certainly, that can make it challenging to understand and recognize the importance of taking action now, but because we certainly are already seeing things here in South Carolina, as well as across the globe, you can’t wait until 2050.”