Storms on Friday, December 14, 2018, dumped several inches of rain on the Charleston area, causing flooding around Crosstowne Christian Church on Bees Ferry Road. Volunteers packed up the valuables from the Church that morning as Church Creek began to crest and spill over into the property. Brad Nettles/Staff Brad Nettles

Charleston church, flooded three times, funds its own study on Church Creek

Crosstowne Christian Church knows how to handle a flood better than most.

The church, as Pastor Paul Rienzo put it recently, is “in a constant state of rebuilding.” After flooding three times in three years, its congregation of 650 has gotten the cleanup and recovery process down to an art: They’re able to move back into the building within two weeks. Around the facility, there’s a ridge on the wall, because the church no longer bothers replacing drywall at the lowest few feet.

Crosstowne, off Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley, is one of the hardest-hit properties when the notoriously flood-prone Church Creek overflows. The narrow channel, which runs just about 10 feet from the church’s back fence, drains 5,000 acres in the area, and has been at the center of a Charleston flooding headachefor decades.

But as the church considered its future, Rienzo said, the options looked slim. Crosstowne considered legal action, but the broad protections of the S.C. Tort Claims Act and ensuing case law means cities are generally protected from being sued for losses related to stormwater standards or management.

Raising the building, one of the most basic mitigation strategies, also didn’t make sense. Lifting the 12,000-square-foot structure would cost $2.1 million. Its total value, Rienzo said, is $2.3 million.

The only thing left was to turn to science.

“Once you get a study, everybody starts listening to you,” Rienzo said. “We can’t cry foul unless we have data.”

Crosstowne recently released a report from hydrologist Joshua Robinson. Unlike the city’s broad-scale studies of the Church Creek Basin in recent years, Robinson’s work analyzed real-time stream flow data from the creek, finding that the church has a 4 percent chance of flooding from combined rainfall and tidal effects in a given year. That’s quadruple the risk necessary to land in one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zones.

The new study also found that the church’s flooding problem is mostly caused by severe rain events. By contrast, one of the major suggestions of a recent  Weston & Sampson study of the entire basin, commissioned by the city, suggested building a tidal gate at the mouth of the basin — something city officials said they are not sure makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective.

While the city of Charleston has recently implemented some of the toughest stormwater rules in the region in the basin — rules that city officials say will help lessen flooding over time with new development — the Crosstowne example shows that residents and other stakeholders are taking it upon themselves to get the data to back up their flooding complaints.

Some say they feel that turning to science is the most effective way to get the city to listen to their concerns. Others worry that too many conflicting papers could muddy the conversation around Charleston’s flood threats, which are wide-ranging and differ from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“I don’t think (studies are) ... necessary to get a voice,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said, “but if it gives you something substantive to talk about, it adds to the conversation.”

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