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Which side of the wall are you on?

The Advocate

By Jay Williams, Jr.

Charleston may become a walled city once again.

The peninsula needs some sort of flood barrier — but what kind, where will it go and what will it look like? Much of that will be up to you. We just received the initial draft from the Army Corps of Engineers 3x3x3 Study, but that’s just a starting point. Until June 19, you’re invited to make your opinions known and there is much to be decided.

The saying, “The devil is in the details,” has never been more applicable.

You may remember (from history class, if not personally) that in the 1690s, brick walls and earthen barriers were erected to protect Charleston from fiercely hostile forces that threatened to destroy us. Then the danger was pirates, Native Americans and the threat of a Spanish invasion. Now it is hurricanes, storm surges and rising sea levels that will deliver king tides every other day by 2045.

The last three storms have not been kind and the next three may be worse, so there’s a sense of urgency. Conversely, there are calls for caution, to slow down and take more time to elicit community engagement to ensure that whatever is built is appropriate for America’s most charming city. But there is urgency now for all of us to get the facts, look at the options and for the city to secure the funding.

On April 20, the Army Corps released its preliminary flood protection plan, the product of an 18-month federally-funded effort that marks the halfway point in its Charleston Peninsula Coastal Flood Risk Management Study, or “3x3x3 plan,” so named because it will be completed in three years, at a cost of $3 million and will go through three levels of Corps review.

The 3x3x3 Charleston Peninsula Study

There are three key elements of the plan. First, build a 12-foot high storm surge wall almost eight miles long around the peninsula. The proposed wall will start near I-26 above Wagener Terrace, continue south along the Ashley River, wrap around the southern tip following the battery sea walls and head north along Morrison Drive to Mt. Pleasant Street. From land, the wall will appear higher or lower in height based on the ground elevation. There will be gates and five pump stations so excess water inside the wall can get out. Second, create a wave attenuation barrier 235 feet offshore from the Low and High Battery sides of the peninsula to temper storm surges. And third, “flood-proof” the areas not encapsulated by the wall, such as Rosemont and Bridgeview Village, which might include raising homes or buying land.

If that’s not enough to consider, there’s more. This proposal has an estimated cost of $1.75 billion; the federal government would pay 65 percent. But the city would be on the hook to fund the $600 million remaining and pay for any required land acquisitions.

That’s money the city doesn’t have.

Further, the proposed floodwall, likely simple reinforced concrete, may not be up to Charleston’s aesthetic standards. If we want something that’s visually more pleasing, such as the appealing nine-foot High Battery wall, with its brick and stone facade and popular slate walkway, that’s extra. While the federal government will pay for a 10-percent premium over the basic costs for approved “recreational improvements” such as walkways and lighting, the city would have to fund anything more.

Think of it as being given a basic car, plus a 10-percent credit for extras. It’s a good deal, but …

The good news is that there is progress toward a flooding solution, the federal government will pick up 65-percent of the basic costs if Congress approves and this is the time to start analyzing and optimizing the project. You’re getting in on the ground floor.

We can make changes

As an example, there may be areas along the Ashley River where a grass-covered levee may look better and perform as well as a wall. We might consider an option to raise Lockwood Drive so that it also functions as a flood barrier. And we should investigate “soft edges” such as tidal creeks that featured prominently in the Dutch Dialogues and that some believe are more 21st-century solutions. “Now is the time to pose questions, explore options and raise concerns about the initial plan,” says Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society. “It’s the time to gather input from the community and the city.”

King wonders how this recommendation fits into the larger picture of flood and non-flood necessary infrastructure. “I think it’s critical that we as a community don’t just accept the first offering that we’ve seen and I think it goes much farther than just aesthetics. There are many different strategies for holding back the water but the Army Corps is only proposing one way and it is the most brutal way. It’s like asking the DOT to design a really nice community park. It’s just not what they do.”

“The Grace Memorial Bridge was originally planned to connect onto Market Street; the James Island Connector was slated to link to Broad Street. But the public’s involvement helped us make better decisions,” King said. “If we need to do this we need to understand why and find the best way possible.”

Any controversy will come down to this: providing flood protection for the peninsula — most of which is less than 20 feet above sea level — versus preserving this historic city’s intimate relationship to the water.

From Waterfront Park, we can literally walk into the water, from the Low Battery wall at high tide, we can almost touch it and from Lockwood Drive it reflects the afternoon sunshine on the marsh just a few feet away (and sometimes, unfortunately, washes over the street). That palpable closeness with water has defined the city for centuries and it’s a relationship we cherish. We need to prioritize how the city relates to the water, historically and aesthetically as we work through these solutions to preserve that affinity as creatively as possible.

Last week, Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation hosted an excellent webinar on the Army Corps’ proposal and highlighted that very point. Hastie noted that whatever we decide the perimeter will look like, it should be multifunctional and beautiful. Where possible, it should be integrated with pathways and walkways and recreational opportunities.

The Preservation Society’s Kristopher King said much the same, “Do we add brick or stucco … because what it looks like will be the difference between living near the Berlin Wall or something that reflects the Charleston’s character.”

He didn’t say it, but he implied that we have to go beyond the basic car. That will cost more.

But most agree we will have to do something, as the sea level near Charleston has risen by a foot since 1899. The Corps estimates that if we do nothing, a coastal storm in 2075 could flood 52 percent of the historic district.

We’re still isolated and social distancing, but you can still get close to your computer. Google “Army Corps Charleston Flood Plan” and browse the Executive Summary and view the captivating “full screen experience.” Please comment before the June 19 deadline, although there will be a second chance next January. But you know how plans evolve, it’s best to speak up early and let the city know which side of the wall, or no wall, you’re on.

Maybe this is the time to finally nix 526: There’s no possible way we can pay for both this and that.

Jay Williams, Jr. arrived in Charleston in 2001 to escape the cold and relax in the warmth of a better culture and climate. This all worked well until May of 2011 when he attended a cruise terminal discussion at Physicians Hall.

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