The Advocate

Jay Williams, Jr.

Flooding, three years in a row. And the last was the worst. Hurricane Irma’s storm surge battered and cascaded over the Low Battery wall. Many residents had just completed extensive home repairs caused by Matthew only to suffer worse damage from Irma. It’s enough to make you cry.

And it’s more than enough to make you angry.

The history

The Mayans blamed violent storms on Huricán, the god of storms. He reportedly required a human sacrifice. Today we blame everything on climate change, and that may be more or less disturbing depending on your perspective. What’s not in doubt is that Charleston has had a centuries-long and often unpleasant relationship with hurricanes and flooding.

The earliest recorded storms began with the Spanish Repulse hurricane of 1686, the Rising Sun hurricane in 1700, and the Storm of 1728 documented by Suzannah Smith Miles in Lowcountry Living. Especially devastating was the Great Carolina Hurricane of September 19, 1752. “The flood came in like a bore, filling the harbor in a few minutes,” the South-Carolina Gazette reported. “All the vessels in the harbour were on shore … all the wharfs and bridges were ruined, and every house, store, etc.” The surge put inhabitants “in the midst of a tempestuous sea, the wind still continuing,” and townspeople “already up to their necks in water in their houses, began now to think of nothing but certain death.” 

That 1752 hurricane also destroyed much of the new construction of St. Michael’s Church as storm waters around it “swirled at least waist high.”

Irma’s storm surge didn’t engulf St. Michaels, but we have a long history with storms. Yet things seem different today.

The Dangers

“We really are under a triple threat,” said Mark Wilbert, the city’s resilience director. “The least dangerous but most apparent are these high tides that we have, the coastal flooding. We had 38 flood events in 2015, but 50 last year, and some predict we’ll have 180 by 2040. These are a persistent chronic threat.

“Then we have extreme participation events that are becoming very localized. It may be raining hard in Mt. Pleasant and dry on the peninsula.” But the most dangerous, Wilbert says, “are the storm surges, combined “with the sea level rise, the intensity and number of hurricanes … higher tides and heavy rains.”

City planner Jacob Lindsay concurs, “We’ve experienced unprecedented flooding. We follow the federally accepted benchmarks on sea level rise; it is occurring and we have to take steps now to prevent further damage.”

It’s easy to forget the water problems as we walk down a charming Charleston street or lay out on a sunny day at Sullivan’s, because those sunny days near the sea are a major reason we all live here. It’s also easy to forget that we had a 1984 flood study sitting around city hall for 33 years, and it mustn’t have seemed that important as more than 60 percent of those recommendations weren’t completed.

Suddenly, after three major floods, everyone is rightly concerned.

The Options

Craig Bennett, a Charleston structural engineer specializing in historic preservation, is circumspect about our options. “The biggest challenge will be if we can keep the water out of our homes. There are many houses that can be elevated but there are other buildings that can be only elevated at great cost. Do we try to protect the whole district with sea walls, or do we change the ways we use those buildings?”

If we want tourists to continue to visit the Historic District, Bennett believes that “you’ll probably have to encircle much more of the Historic District than the battery or you’ll have water rushing in from the backside of the wall,” and “even that solution may not be effective for 200 years.”

Some initial steps are underway.

“We’ve been making investments in certain areas of the city, the medical districts and the Crosstown, neighborhoods near the low battery and Colonial Lake, and Church Creek drainage basin in West Ashley,” says city planner Jacob Lindsay. The Crosstown, the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in the city’s history, with 20 years of planning and 10 of construction, features underground pipes buried 12’ deep connected to giant pumps to move the water. Work is progressing in the medical center area, and the new West Edge development was designed and built to serve as a sea wall.

Even though the urgency mounts, some solutions will depend on how we want our city to look, and that begins with the plans for the Low Battery wall.

Four new designs will be unveiled tonight at the Memminger Auditorium that would raise the sidewalk by two-and-a-half feet with an additional 36 inches of railing that can hold flood panels as necessary.

Jacob Lindsay explains that the new wall is designed to prevent nuisance flooding, but “in the event of an extreme storm, water will come over the wall … we’re not trying to build a castle wall. We’re tying to prevent the majority of flooding in the city.” Pumps can be added to remove the water that does come in.

But the idea of a castle wall surely will be raised, and a critical decision must be made. Do we want to live on a peninsula that is more flood-proof but is visually isolated from the beauty of the harbor?

And what about Mr. Bennett’s concern about additional barriers along the peninsula? “The simple truth is that this is a shared responsibility, and the state has a major role to play — from elevating critical state roads like Lockwood Drive, to fortifying essential state infrastructure, like the College of Charleston, the Citadel and the port,” explained city spokesman Jack O’Toole. He added that, “The mayor and our resilience team had a very positive meeting with Gov. McMaster on the flooding issue just last week.”

A citywide technical vulnerability study will be budgeted for 2018 that will include all potential threat from hurricanes to earthquakes, resilience manager Wilbert says. Unlike previous plans that separated land use from flooding issues, this study will overlay every element.

Charleston is hardly alone. New York, Annapolis and Miami, among other coastal cities are facing critical sea rise and flooding issues. Every solution is being explored including anti-flood walls that are used in Venice and the movable storm surge barriers operating in the Netherlands. “We’re working to bring someone from the Netherlands to Charleston to talk to talk about that and we’re headed to Annapolis soon,” Wilbert said. Lindsay added, “We’re bringing in every skill and every resource we have on the problem of flooding and drainage.”

The good news is that the city is already funding the Low Battery wall with a combination of hospitality taxes. That means that we’re building a wall and the tourists are paying for it. But who knew that Lockwood Boulevard was owned by the state? We’ll certainly need state and federal involvement and funding to protect our city.

City spokesman Jack O’Toole put it this way, “It will take county, state, federal, and nonprofit, as well as our citizens’ input … to get actionable projects agreed upon, financed and underway.”

 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

6:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain Street

 

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.