North Charleston Residents Plan to Sue the City Because of Repeated Flooding

Feb 27, 2017

Amy Knoch recently moved back into her house. When I visited, she was weaving through a maze of Rubbermaid bins that were stacked in her living room. .

Knoch lifted the lid of one box full of office supplies and the next her child’s toys.

“It’s like an organized version of a hoarder’s house,” she said. “Everything is in bins based on what room it came out of but you have pathways between all of the rooms.”  

She and her family lived in an apartment for three months after flooding from Hurricane Matthew damaged her home.  

“We lost two or three big pieces of furniture. But again because it was only air quotes 14 inches of water, we didn’t lose as much this time as we did the last time,” she said sarcastically.

The last time her hone flooded was just 16 months ago. The one story house in North Charleston’s Pepperhill neighborhood flooded twice in two years – October 2015 and 2016. She is frustrated and wants out.

“Moses could come down here and swear he would part the seas every time it rains and I still wouldn’t want to stay in this house,” Knoch said. “The house is rebuilt, everything is fine. I didn’t want to move back into this house after this flood.”

But as of now Knoch has to. She’s not optimistic the home will sell.

“They are nice homes and we have done a lot of work to this one and it could be worth something,” she said. “But nobody is going to buy it with two major flood claims on it in two years. So we are stuck.”

Knoch wants the city to buyout her home. North Charleston is one of many cities considering this option. Conway is planning to buyout several homes and Greenville County has done these acquisitions for years. It is seen as one of the most effective ways to get people out of the flood zone.

But for that to happen, it would take a while and some of Knoch’s neighbors don’t want to wait. They feel the city’s responsible for the re-occurring flooding. More than 20 of them decided to sue. Their attorney Jerry Wiggers has advised them not to speak publicly while the case is ongoing.

“One of the things we hope for the residents is that we can get the problem fixed,” Wiggers said. “They weren’t initially living in an area that flooded all the time.”

Wiggers is planning to file a case alleging the city didn’t properly maintain drainage systems and was negligent in allowing development of a nearby road which he believes led to flooding in the neighborhood.

“They didn’t do appropriate drainage plans,” he said. “They used existing drainage that should have been upgraded and they also pushed water back into the neighborhood that was getting drained off before the parkway was placed.”

The city of North Charleston says it will not comment on the lawsuit. But spokesman Ryan Johnson says the city is still trying to find a way to help these residents.

“The city continues to evaluate every opportunity available that best benefits its citizens impacted by Hurricane Matthew,” Johnson said.

The homeowners are seeking compensation for the damage to their homes. They’re able to do so thanks in part to something called the taking’s clause. It’s a law that protects homeowners so governments can’t just take private property without paying for it.

Vermont Law School professor John Echeverria said this means residents, like those in the Pepperhill neighborhood, can try and hold governments liable for decisions it made that have been proven to cause flooding.  

“I think it is fair to say it is an evolving area of the law,” Echeverria said. “How easy it will be to pursue these claims remains to be seen. At least for the time being we are seeing more and more claims being filed.”

Echeverria attributes that increase to a recent United States Supreme Court decision in favor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Department. The court ruled the Army Corp of Engineers essentially took state land because it released more water than usual onto the property flooding it. Echeverria warns holding governments liable for temporary flooding. He worries that could lead a bigger problem.  

“Government would just be frozen in its tracks,” he said. “The government has to have latitude to regulate use of land and manage flood water and cannot be held liable under takings clause if anyone is harmed in any way by public’s management of floodwaters.”

Echeverria said if people chose to live in a flood prone area he doesn’t think the public necessarily owes them money when it floods. He added that’s what flood insurance is for.