Learning to Live with Water in Charleston, South Carolina

August 2018

We have a legend here in Charleston, dating back to the 1830s, which says that Mayor Henry Laurens Pinckney offered a $100 gold coin to anyone who could solve the city’s drainage problem; and even for what was an impressive sum at the time, nobody could. Today this story, true or not, continues to illustrate our very real struggle. We even keep an imitation gold coin in the Mayor’s office as a symbol, a reminder that flooding has always been Charleston’s greatest challenge.

Over the past few decades, flood risk has become more pervasive, and we continue to champion new efforts to respond to that risk. For context, four major rivers and their tributaries snake through Charleston on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, forming the peninsulas and islands that roughly 135,000 people call home. Water is part of the city’s essence, its beauty, and what makes people want to live here. However, as coastal cities and towns around the world know all too well, abundant water also causes plenty of headaches, destruction, and danger—and it’s only getting worse.

When I was a kid growing up here in the 1960s, we experienced two or three days a year of what is now called nuisance flooding: floods that block streets and can shut down businesses for days at a time. Two years ago that number reached 35 days. Last year it hit 50. More alarming still, three major floods have pummeled us in as many years—extreme flooding in 2015, caused by record-setting downpours, and two consecutive years of hurricane-related flooding, from Matthew in 2016, and Irma in 2017. Based on estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we’re planning for a 1.5-foot to 2.5-foot sea level increase over the next 50 years.

As flood risk has become more pervasive, our efforts to respond to that risk are evolving and intensifying. Charleston’s Sea Level Rise Strategy, which the city council adopted in 2016, lays out plans that include expanding and improving the city’s stormwater drainage system, and rebuilding the historic 19th century seawall higher and wider. A far cry from Mayor Pinckney’s days, these critical projects will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but represent only part of the solution.

We’ve also taken to heart a lesson that coastal communities across the country are now coming to terms with—while you can and should build systems and fortify barriers in preparation for the storms and floods to come, physical barriers aren’t the only answer. You also have to learn to live with water.

In the 1990s, under my predecessor Mayor Joseph Riley, the city built its first drainage system, which covers 10-15% of the central peninsula. This network of tunnels runs 120 feet underground, carrying stormwater to a pumping station that pushes it back into the river. During Hurricane Matthew, this system pumped about 65 million gallons of water out of the city in a 24-hour period. Almost two years later, we’re now three to four years away from completing another drainage system, to cover another 10-15% of the peninsula at an estimated cost of $170 million. A third system is in the planning and design stage, with early cost estimates at $200 million.

Additionally, we plan to rebuild the city’s deteriorating seawall, adding as much as 2.5 feet in some places. We expect the first phase of construction to begin around the end of 2018, but the entire project could ultimately take a decade or longer to finish, at a cost of more than $100 million.

Paying for such ambitious initiatives means cobbling together funds from a number of sources, including the City’s stormwater fee, a portion of the local property tax fund, federal tidal grants, and state infrastructure bank funding. We also have a proposal before the South Carolina State Senate that, if approved, would allow municipalities to use revenue from hospitality and accommodations taxes for flood mitigation projects.

We’ve taken other, less expensive measures as well. We’ve placed valves on the existing drainage system that help prevent tidewater from entering the pipes, passed tough zoning ordinances that limit or prohibit new development in flood-prone areas, and preserved and restored wetlands and other green spaces.

Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded the city more than $10 million in grants to buy 48 flood-prone properties in the suburb of West Ashley. Under the agreement, FEMA pays 75% of the cost, while the city pays the remainder. These 48 houses and any additional homes that qualify for the program will be razed and the properties used for green space or allowed to return to their natural state.

One young family who benefited bought their home for $160,000 in 2004. By the time they got out from under it, they’d racked up $300,000 in federal insurance claims. Homeowners in this sort of situation find themselves trapped in a house they can’t sell, in a repetitive cycle of flooding, insurance claims, and clean up.

The truth is we’ve had a history of ill-advised development in some areas and suburbs that should never have been built. We’ve come to realize there are simply certain spaces where the water’s going to go. We can battle flooding on a number of fronts, but we can’t entirely tame nature. In the long run, we have to learn to live in harmony with our coastal environment.

John Tecklenburg is the current mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, serving the community since 2016.

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