Photo above: These are some of the beachfront homes on Harbor Island that were heavily damaged by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. Photo by Bob Sofaly.
By Sally Mahan
When Hurricane Matthew roared through Northern Beaufort Country, the devastation was heartbreaking. Homes were flooded, trees crashed down on roofs and cars and damages were ultimately in the millions of dollars.
The Sea Islands, including Fripp, St. Helena, Hunting and others were particularly hard hit, though many have recovered or are on the road to recovery.
However, one small island is still suffering, and there seems to be no end in sight.
Harbor Island is a 1,400-acre gated community about 15 miles east of Beaufort. It is known for its natural beauty, with 3 miles of sandy white beaches. However, those beaches, and many of the homes that line them, took a huge hit from Hurricane Matthew.
There are about 20 homes that need to come down – several of which are beachfront homes – and the cost of tearing them down and removing the debris could run into the millions. Beaufort County has tagged 14 of those homes as dangerous.
The problem is that homeowners have not been eligible to collect FEMA funds, although some of the funds Beaufort County received were used to clean up debris on Harbor Island. The vast majority of FEMA’s resources and efforts are spent on public assistance grant programs that provide infrastructure restoration.
Additionally, federal support is only available once private insurance has been exhausted.
Some individual victims of disaster were offered personal loans by the Small Business Administration, or they had to depend on their homeowners insurance. Homeowners on Harbor Island were denied SBA loans.
Insurance policies have not been much help either. Policies are often written with “anti-concurrent causation” clauses that can be difficult to understand. These clauses allow insurers to deny coverage even when a single exclusion is accompanied by inclusions, for instance when a home is destroyed by fire, wind and flood, but the homeowner did not carry flood insurance, the claim can be denied.
Federal aid programs require victims to first apply for loans before qualifying to apply for FEMA aid. But Harbor Island homeowners were also denied that aid.
One final option seemed to be their only hope. So they turned to the state of South Carolina for a grant through the state’s Hazard Mitigation Division.
“They said we needed to form a nonprofit,” said Don Woelke, general manager of Harbor Island. “Then they accepted the initial grant application, but it was suddenly turned down. The homeowners were told to obtain a massive amount of information and we had to have it to them by Aug. 1. It didn’t leave them much time and then the State Emergency Management Department called and said they could not proceed unless we were a municipality, which we are not.”
So, the community turned to Beaufort County. If the county would apply for the grant on behalf of Harbor Island, the grant would likely be approved, said Woelke.
According to a letter to the homeowners from Karl Mack, president of the Harbor Island Homeowners Association (HIHA), “Some owners of damaged beachfront homes had hoped to obtain a FEMA hazard mitigation grant to buy their properties and demolish their buildings. At the last minute, they were told by the State Emergency Management Division that the grant had to be submitted by a government agency. In our case that means Beaufort County.”
To facilitate discussion, Harbor Island provided its community center for a meeting between those owners, county authorities and the HIOA board. The county had also held a previous meeting with the state to try to figure out a solution, said Woelke.
At the meeting, the county stated that in return for submitting the grant, it wanted to put a public park, parking lot and bathroom facilities on the lots receiving the grant for homes to be removed.
“This was the first time this information had been shared with the HIOA board,” said Mack in his letter to the homeowners. “Immediately following the meeting, HIOA sought and received advice from our lawyer. He stated that the county’s proposal would violate our covenants’ requirement that lots be used only for residential purposes. The HIOA informed the county of that legal opinion and the county withdrew its proposal.”
“It was a big surprise to us,” said Woelke. “I said ‘Wow! You want to put a park in a private gated community?’ Our covenants will not allow that to happen. They say that each of those lots are for a single-family dwelling and as a result, the county backed down and will not submit the grant proposal.
“We were blessed to get some FEMA (debris) removal help and the county was supportive of that.”
The county defended its position regarding not applying for the grant.
Eric Larson, the county’s director of environmental engineering and land management, said, “It’s unfortunate, but Harbor Island was misinformed by the state that they weren’t a municipality. We told them months ago that they would have to go through the county.
“There has to be a public benefit to be involved in this project; it’s not a law, but policy of the administration,” he said. “Why would the county spend money and time on something where there is no public benefit?”
Larsen said if the island did get the state grant with the county’s help, then the county would have to administer the grant, which is costly and time-consuming.
“They want us to expend county tax dollars, staff time, procure contractors … there is a lot of red tape when you’re overseeing a grant.
“There has to be a demonstrated public benefit. We’re buying beach property that can’t be rebuilt upon under the application rules,” he said. “And if there is a public beach, there has to be public facility and parking. We can’t just open the gates to a beach community without parking and facilities.”
He added that the county would have “built it all at our expense and managed it as a public park, and asked HIOA to make reasonable public access.”
Larsen said the county suggested that they amend the covenants, “but they said, no, they wouldn’t make an amendment for the property to be used for the public.”
So, things are at an impasse.
Woelke said they are discouraged. “We’re in search of a solution, but it doesn’t look good.”
“The county has no other plans that we are aware of to acquire property on Harbor Island or otherwise provide more public access to the Island,” Mack wrote in his letter. “The county representatives indicated that the county has no money to buy property here and they were clear that they were not thinking of exercising eminent domain. In short, nothing has changed or seems likely to change regarding ownership or access.”