Once again the tragic results of an extreme storm were exacerbated by aging and neglected water systems.
The devastating floods in South Carolina last week resulted in part from the failure of the state’s water infrastructure, which was inadequate to protect coastal areas from the historic levels of rainfall that fell over several days. Deteriorating dams and aging drinking water systems plagued South Carolina long before last week’s floods.
At least 20 dams were reported to have collapsed during the catastrophic floods, largely because of their age – several of the dams that breached were more than 100 years old, and the state has been unable to come up with the money to upgrade them. According to a recent report, South Carolina has been spending just $65,000 annually on dam inspections, second to last in the country, and the American Society of Civil Engineers recently cited the fact that just one and a half dam safety inspectors are responsible for more than 2,300 dams spread throughout the state. Dams are expensive to fix (the Association of State Dam Safety estimates that it would cost roughly $54 billion to upgrade and repair all of the dams in the country in need of rehabilitation), and state governments simply don’t have the funds to foot that bill.
As was the case in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, the failure of South Carolina’s flood protection systems resulted in the loss of life and billions of dollars in property damage (and, in some areas in South Carolina, crop loss), all of which could have been prevented with adequate investment in water infrastructure. As we have said before, declining federal assistance in this area has left coastal areas like the Carolinas especially vulnerable to failure. Until the federal government steps up and assumes a more active role in helping fund needed infrastructure in communities exposed to these risks, devastation like that in South Carolina will repeat itself.