South Carolina officials clash over flood barrier

A car drives through a flooded intersection on Sunday in Latta, in eastern South Carolina.
(Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

With the handful of rivers encircling this beach gateway about to flood, South Carolina officials made a controversial decision.

They ordered state transportation workers and National Guard troops to erect a protective barrier along U.S. 501, the main route into Myrtle Beach and other tourist towns.

Local officials condemned the barrier Sunday, saying it put the interests of tourists and businesses ahead of residents whose homes might flood. The state built another flood barrier on the highway through nearby Florence County, prompting concerns.

“It could do more harm than good,” said Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy, who leads a city of about 22,000.


The barrier was designed to shore up the highway where it’s prone to flood near a bridge over the Waccamaw River, according to Peter Poore, a spokesman for South Carolina’s department of transportation. He said they aimed to finish by Tuesday, the day before the river is expected to crest, and would release cost figures for the barrier then.

Adam Emrick, Conway’s city administrator, said the mile-and-a-half-long, five-foot-high dirt-filled Hesco barriers could redirect Waccamaw overflow into neighborhoods. He feared it would contribute to flooding about a thousand homes.

Poore declined to comment on the potential for flooding, referring questions to a spokesman for the governor. The spokesman did not respond late Sunday.

Emrick said that during a conference call with state officials Sunday morning he asked that they justify the makeshift dam with research, but they did not.

“We shouldn’t be moving forward with something that could cause a problem,” he said after the briefing at the local emergency operations center.

Lex Johnson, 65, surveys flooding outside his home in Conway, S.C.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

The city council held an emergency meeting at the center Sunday afternoon, broadcast on Facebook, to hire a lawyer and pursue an injunction blocking the barrier. But with many offices still closed due to the storm, it wasn’t clear how soon that would be possible.

After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, officials released excess water from reservoirs into neighborhoods, flooding homes. Residents later sued, accusing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of effectively condemning their properties.

Emrick said Conway wants to avoid similar flooding and lawsuits prompted by the barrier. He said city officials would go door to door in coming days, notifying residents of the flood risk.

Conway officials also questioned why the governor lifted an evacuation order for surrounding Horry County on Sunday with some of the worst flooding expected in the coming days.

Residents said the answer lies in the social fabric of the low country coast, dependent on tourism in the glitzy Grand Strand beach towns at the end of U.S. 501, especially Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach Mayor Barbara Bethune supported lifting the evacuation and building the barrier.

“We’re looking at a situation right now when these rivers crest in the next day or two that’s going to further cut us off,” she said by phone Sunday.

During a weekend phone call with President Trump, Bethune said she raised concerns about road access. She said 19 million people drive to visit the area annually.

“Our road system is not designed to handle that,” she said, and it can take 50 hours to evacuate in an emergency.

Bethune said many of the employees at her beverage wholesale business live in Horry County, and if U.S. 501 floods, “We may have 50% of our employees who can’t come into work.”

Summer is their busy season, but Bethune and other beach businesses still depend on September for convention, golf and other sports tourism.

“Our businesses need to be open. They have suffered huge financial losses because of the time this storm lingered. We need people to be able to get back into town, get their biz open so we can help them rebuild,” Bethune said.

She said Conway officials’ fears that the barrier will flood neighborhoods were unfounded.

“There are no models that show that. I have full faith in the engineers and the department of transportation. They know what they’re doing,” she said.

Fellow Myrtle Beach business owner Don Cauthen reopened at noon Sunday, but only had eight customers all day from nearby Breakers and Sandcastle hotels. He feared flooding on U.S. 501 could hurt traffic long term, and the barrier might help. But he wasn’t sure it would work.

“If they try to do it and it fails, it’s going to waste a bunch of money,” Cauthen said.

Horry County officials mapped parts of Conway that they said might flood near the barrier, including homes along Crabtree Creek, already out of its banks and creeping toward homes Sunday.

Facilities manager Lex Johnson, 65, has lived along the creek all his life, trained as a mechanical engineer and worries the barrier will worsen flooding.

“They’re going to block off where nature wants to flow,” said his wife, Georgia Johnson, who had called the mayor and a city council member to complain about the barrier she saw as designed to help beach communities.

“You do things for the good of all, not some,” she said.

Johnson sat across the kitchen from her husband, who was monitoring river levels on his laptop.

During Hurricane Matthew two years ago, floodwaters rose about five feet to their brick porch but didn’t enter the house. This time, the creek was expected to rise four more feet. All they could do was watch it creep into their yard.