The little red house on Shoreham Road has been flooded at least seven times since it was built 30 years ago. It’s not like the city didn’t know there was a problem.
The city of Charleston knew because the man who built the house — and many like it on James Island — came begging for forgiveness right from the start. And the city was more than ready to forgive. The homeowners who have endured decades of misery since weren’t nearly so fortunate.
The red house at 1171 Shoreham was important to Ana Zimmerman, her husband, Darin Jones, and their 13-year-old daughter Soren because it was home for 12 years. But Shoreham Road, a single street in a working-class neighborhood, is important, too, as a case study in how development, poorly done and poorly regulated, has contributed mightily to Charleston’s flooding crisis.
“Sadly, (almost) every house on Shoreham has a story,” says Zimmerman, standing in the abandoned shell of her former home, flooded three times in two years. It is now riddled with mold and termites and declared unfit for habitation.
“The weird thing is there were some really good times and friendships formed the decade in between the yearly back-to-back flooding events,” she says. “Yet flooding destroys the community. Friends that used to see each other daily, baby-sit each other’s kids, eat dinner together and have backyard picnics are now displaced and scattered around town.”
What went wrong on Shoreham Road is spelled out in detail in the transcript of the Oct. 13, 1987, meeting of the obscure Board of Adjustments and Appeals.
David Nichols, the owner of Mount Pleasant-based Great Southern Builders, didn’t mince words that day: He had built 19 homes, the final phase of his 140-unit Willow Walk development near Folly and Fort Johnson roads, only to discover they were 3 feet below the required elevation.
Not granting a flood variance risked opening ‘’an enormous can of worms,’’ he said. There would be a raft of lawsuits from homebuyers against his company, the closing attorneys, the surveying and engineering firms, the mortgage companies and even the city, he warned.
‘’Again, I’m standing right here in front of you and saying we did wrong. We did dead wrong,’’ he said. ‘’We’re asking for a variance due to hardship. And the hardship point blank being, hey, it’s the end of my company if we don’t get it.’’
He brought his own paid expert to testify the houses wouldn’t flood.
The board gave Dave Nichols his flood variance, saying the homeowners who had just bought these little houses on concrete slabs shouldn’t pay for his mistakes. Board member Russell Rosen expressed the prevailing view.
‘’First of all, we are very sympathetic to your problem. As you gather, no doubt, we had some discussions about this before. I want to wish you luck with what is going on,’’ he told Nichols. ‘’I do hope that the word will be passed through the community to be more mindful of just what’s going on in the developing of tracts like this, because unfortunately, we see more of these than we like. ‘’
And he finished with this prescient warning: ‘’I certainly hope we don’t have a storm that will create a problem that, you know, the nightmare is that we will have a hurricane hit here on a 14-foot high tide one day, and it will play hell with all of us.’’
Rosen’s sympathy was misplaced, the board’s solution short-sighted. With a single unanimous vote, Great Southern got its variances allowing it to receive the certificates of occupancy it needed. But it hadn’t actually solved anything: The homes were still built too low.
It was, in fact, the people left behind who paid the price and those who followed them. Some Shoreham Road homes — but not all — began flooding almost immediately and repeatedly. The house at 1171 Shoreham, for instance, flooded four or five times in the first few years, the original owner told me. Years of lawsuits followed.
And it would take less than two years for Rosen’s nightmare to come to pass — it was called Hurricane Hugo.
In an email, Rosen says, ‘’Regretfully, I have absolutely no recollection of this.’’ But Dave Nichols does: ‘’It was devastating.’’
Nichols, sitting in the small sunroom of his Mount Pleasant townhouse, says they got the required elevations wrong. ‘’I can’t deny responsibility,’’ he says. ‘’I was the head guy. I can’t dodge that.’’
His company failed three years after getting the Shoreham Road variances, though he kept building until the Great Recession forced him out of business for good. In all, the 68-year-old Nichols estimates he built 2,000 houses, many of them in the Charleston area.
(His Great Southern Builders has no connection to another company of the same name on Johns Island.
Soren’s tree swing still hangs from the big maple in the front yard, and her treehouse is out back. But Zimmerman and her family have fled. And they have taken Mr. Bill, their 89-year-old neighbor, with them.
Zimmerman, 47, is an immunologist at the College of Charleston. With the certainty of a scientist and the guilt of a mom, she says the mold in the house is responsible for her daughter’s allergies. There is no way, she says, she is going to pass this diseased house on to some other unsuspecting family.
‘’I will not be ethically able to look in the mirror if I came by here and there is another kid in the yard,’’ she says.
They cashed out their retirement accounts and turned to family for help to buy another house 2 miles away. Their new home is two stories, which makes Soren feel safer should the floods come again. Just in case, she has a loft-style bed, putting her about 5 feet above the floor.
Mr. Bill — William O. Harrell, one of the original Shoreham residents — lives down the hall in the master bedroom, complete with a large bathroom and walk-in closet. Ana and Darin occupy the third bedroom, the smallest, and their clothes pour out of the closet onto the floor.
So they have landed. But it is hardly over. Not for them — they are exhausted and owe $80,000 on their wreck of a home on Shoreham — and not for all the other families who are still recovering from last fall’s floods that Irma brought. And Matthew before that.
The lesson of Shoreham Road is that mistakes, once made, have long lives. All through the Lowcountry, developers have built and are building homes in floodplains. Developers move on, those who are supposed to oversee them come and go. But it is the people left behind, trapped in the debtors’ prison of the homes they cannot escape, who must live with the consequences.
Three decades later, the agony on Shoreham Road goes on and on. And hurricane season is 33 days away.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the P&C commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.