Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 6:  Doom With a View

JACK HITT: “You are not going to believe this,” Jimmy Carroll said, hustling us down the beach on the Isle of Palms, right outside Charleston. “You have to see it.”

We arrived at the south end of the island, near the redcoat-swallowing breach inlet we wrote about yesterday, and found a battered gazebo slumped on the beach. “This used to be 100 feet back in the dunes,” Carroll said. “You can go on Google Maps and hit time lapse. Go back only four or five years and you can see the change is that dramatic.”

Carroll isn’t an environmentalist; he’s a very successful real-estate agent and just a pleasure to be around. In fact, he’s precisely the guy who has seen up close all of the catastrophic effects of climate change, as well as the odd thinking that accompanies them. “Everybody realizes that we are having more ocean-oriented events, yet I still see people buying on the ocean,” he said. “It’s like going to Vegas and rolling the dice.”

Most of the country might not think that a state as conservative as South Carolina would even be acting on this issue. All the Republican candidates for president either say that climate change doesn’t exist or is irrelevant. But the lowcountry, with its solid red constituency, is one of the increasing number of places in the U.S. where one can see some of the most aggressive and innovative work to combat the ravages of climate change.

KEVIN BAKER: To understand how we got to where we are today, it’s useful to take a look at the ghastly politics of, yes, flood insurance. Try not to get too excited.

Until about 1950, flood insurance was included in most basic homeowners’ policies. But when more and more Americans started buying houses, and more and more houses were being built on risky floodplains, insurers wrote flood protection out of their policies. By 1960, flood insurance was separate, scarce and pricey.

Trying to address this problem, Congress came up with a fairly practical, bipartisan fix. In 1968, it created something called the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Under NFIP, homeowners could get flood insurance that was subsidized by the federal government—but only so long as they bought or built homes in communities that enforced rules to prevent flooding

NFIP was designed to be self-supporting by homeowners, with money from their insurance policies going directly into the fund. It was even hoped—in those antediluvian times—that enough of a surplus would be accumulated to help homeowners through particularly large disasters. This never really came to pass, but for decades, NFIP did indeed prove to be self-sustaining.

Increasingly, though, local communities became lax about enforcing their floodplain ordinances, and the cost to the feds started to mount. At the same time, Americans started to flock to the water; since 1970, our coastal populations have increased by 40 percent.

By 2003, the General Accounting Office (GAO) was estimating that “repetitive loss properties” were costing NFIP up to $200 million a year. Thanks to cheap, federally subsidized insurance, people just kept rebuilding on ground everyone knew to be dangerous.

Steven Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense put it this way: “If you’re an 18-year-old and you buy a Ferrari, you’re probably not going to be able to get insurance. Even if you’re a 30-year-old driving a Chevy Cavalier, if you get in an accident, your premiums are going to go up. That doesn’t happen with flood insurance. We had properties that flooded 17 or 18 times that were still covered under the federal insurance program.”

Still, by 2005, NFIP remained solvent. Total payouts were less than a billion a year—chump change. Then came Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which forced NFIP to shell out $13.3 billion to Louisiana homeowners alone.

Another Katrina victim: the boring-sounding, but absolutely crucial National Flood Insurance Plan. (Getty)

By mid-2011, NFIP was $18 billion in the hole, with revenues of only $3.6 billion a year. Despite its losses, low-risk flood insurance remained at an average of only $1,489 each year for homeowners; even high-risk flood insurance was just $2,633 annually. NFIP had to make up its deficits by borrowing from the Treasury. That is to say, the rest of us.

Clearly, something had to be done. And once again, Congress came up with a fairly reasonable bipartisan plan. Signed into law in 2012, the Biggert-Waters bill—don’t you just love it? “Bigger waters”—ended some of the worst abuses of the feds’ largesse.

“Biggert-Waters was one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress related to insurance,” claimed Howard Kunreuther, a professor at the Wharton School. For the first time, he said, the government would make property owners pay insurance premiums based on their real level of risk. No way Americans were going to go for that.

JH: What crashed Isle of Palms back in 2007 wasn’t a hurricane, but the collapse of the housing market. “Houses lost 50 percent of their value,” said Jimmy Carroll, who also noted that about one-half of the Charleston area’s 5,000 realtors at the time also dropped out of the business.

But now, new homes are going up everywhere. Driving us around town in his BMW SUV, Carroll pointed to a large new house being built on the beach. “I sold that lot for $1.8 million for a spec house, and the house is already sold,” he said. “So the market is back.”

And at a truly insane time. Barrier islands have a normal ebb and flow of sand. I grew up on this beach and saw the sand in front of my grandfather’s house expand for decades. Carroll has seen the ebb and flow, too, but thinks we’ve reached some tipping point. “In my lifetime, this is as bad as I have ever seen it,” he told me. The areas near the inlets are shedding beach at a clip that’s so fast it has affected his sense of ethics as a salesman. There are parts of the island Jimmy considers off-limits. “I won’t sell land where it is erosional,” he emphasized again and again. “I don’t want people calling me up.”

Down Ocean Blvd, we walked to the beach on a public path right beside two concrete trucks pouring a swimming pool in the yard of a $5 million house under construction. We gaped openly. In a few weeks the chaise lounges and the table umbrellas will be set around the pool. It’s going to be a stunning backyard. But the pool is literally a few dozen feet from where the escarpment plunges straight down into a high-tide surf. The owners may not know it yet, but in a few years, they’ll have one of those natural saltwater pools instead.

What we are likely to get is yet another quick, expensive fix for Band-Aid Nation.

KB: No, Hurricane Sandy wasn’t “the second largest natural disaster in U.S. history,” as the late, lamented Chris Christie liked to claim. But it did leave 117 people dead and cause more than $70 billion in damages across 24 states. It also capsized NFIP.

After Sandy, the program went $28 billion in the hole. And because of Biggert-Waters, the average cost of flood insurance leapt by 55 percent.

Horror stories abounded in the press. It was reported, for example, that Richard and Sandra Drake, of Union Beach, New Jersey, saw their annual premium rise from $598 to $33,000 between 2013 and 2014. Lurie and Michael Portanova, of Pennsylvania, had bought two buildings in their hometown in 2012—only to see their insurance rise from $3,000 a year to $26,868.

There were those who believed that lifelong residents of a shore town, who bought multiple waterfront properties there in an age of radical weather change, maybe did not deserve the support and protection of our federal government. But those individuals did not preside in Congress.

“Let me just say, all of the harm that has been caused to thousands of people across the country—[who] are calling us, [who] are going to lose their homes, [who] are placed in this position—is just unconscionable,” Rep. Maxine Waters proclaimed in a hearing to discuss the increase in insurance costs.

Two questions immediately came to mind: 1) Why was Maxine Waters calling her own bill, just passed, “unconscionable”? 2) Just how many calls was she getting from her constituents in California’s 43rd, an inner-city district which does not now and never has included any noticeable body of water, flood-prone or otherwise?

Those questions disappeared after I discovered that Waters’s top five campaign contributors are, in order: the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, the DCI Group (a top right-wing lobbying shop which once surreptitiously released a YouTube video mocking An Inconvenient Truth), AFLAC (you know, with the duck), PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG, a giant global conglomerate that was sued by Fannie Mae for signing off on some of the bad numbers that popped the housing bubble and nearly brought down the world’s financial system in 2008.

But I’m being cynical.

Let’s just say that Waters was honestly worried about Americans with beach homes. So, apparently were Senators Robert Menendez and Johnny Isakson, who demanded changes in Biggert-Waters. Governors, state legislators, insurers and home-builders from all over the U.S. jumped on the bandwagon.

In 2014, just two years after the original reforms to flood insurance subsidies took hold, Congress passed—and President Obama signed into law—the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act (FHIAA), which restored all those “grandfathered” properties to eligibility for federal subsidies, covered vacation homes again and limited flood insurance increases to a maximum of 18 percent a year.

“The weakened act is much less likely to slow down coastal development in flood zones, and that’s bad news for advocates of an aggressive climate change policy,” bemoaned Scott Gabriel Knowles, an associate professor of history at Drexel University and author of The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America.

He’s wrong, though. If anything, the sort of booming coastal development now transforming Isle of Palms and dozens of other communities around America is likely to increase recognition of climate change and advocacy for a more aggressive policy to combat it. Unfortunately, it may bankrupt us all before it does.

The average American living in a floodplain, mind you, doesn’t get subsidized insurance. Of 5.5 million holders of flood insurance, only around 20 percent—usually some very wealthy people—get subsidies.

But as usual, they have us where they want us. Floods are already the number one disaster in these United States—and NFIP is still $28 billion in the hole. And as of 2011, the total value of floodplain properties insured by companies backed by NFIP was $527 billion.

That’s right—half a trillion dollars that all of us are on the stick for.

JH: At the north end of the island, Jimmy Carroll walked us out to the beach to show us the work being done to save it. A series of Wave Dissipation System walls lined the edge of the dunes, and, sure enough, the sand inside the walls was a few inches higher than outside, so they did appear to be working. In 2008, this two-mile stretch of the island, which is privately owned, decided to spend $10 million on “sand renourishment.”

He pointed to an offshore sandbar and recalled how trucks barrelled out there, every twelve hours at low tide, night-and-day, to truck back sand. “That lasted a few years,” he said. And it’ll probably have to happen again soon.

Carroll, who is on the Isle of Palms city council and cannier than any politician we’ve encountered on the trail thus far, steered away from using the words “climate change” and would not commit to what might be causing all the damage in his neighborhood. I ventured that it probably has something to do with the massive deposits we pump into the atmosphere. “No one is thinking in those kind of mega-terms,” he said. “We are all thinking in local terms and how it’s going to affect us financially. I hate to say that we have to push that up to the higher levels of government.”

But we all know by now that those higher levels of government—with an obstinate, broken Congress and an embattled president on the way out—can’t be counted on to do enough to help Isle of Palms or any one of the other thousand communities just like it. Instead, what we are likely to get is yet another quick, expensive fix for Band-Aid Nation. No program that sufficiently addresses the cost of climate change, but a host of new industries—from the sand trucks on the levies, to the backhoes installing the sand bags and Lincoln logs on Isle of Palms beach—that will solemnly address all the symptoms. Oh, and maybe a new insurance plan, too.

At the far end of the beach, we encountered an enormous, five-story condo unit called the Ocean Club literally crumbling into the ocean, a tangle of broken concrete slabs and rebar.

“Yeah, people still live there,” Carroll said in response to our incredulous looks.

He assured us that the condo’s corner pilings, buried 40-feet deep in the sand, still held, and that the sea had totaled only the ground-level parking garage, but had “not hit the water or sewer lines.”

He walked us around the corner to point out a flag on a golf course right on the beach.

“That’s the 18th green of the Ocean Course,” he said, “It’s very famous. It was a par five. Now it’s a par three.”