Charleston Fire Department responds with a high-water rescue vehicle to a stranded driver last year during an unusually high tide in Charleston. (Photo Grace Beahm Alford).

SC - Editorial: ‘This is coming at us.’ Charleston’s flooding is only going to get worse.

The Charleston Fire Department responds with a high-water rescue vehicle in Charleston. It’s these minor, more frequent flooding events — and not necessarily direct hits from hurricanes — that could make Charleston unsustainable in the future if the city doesn’t act. Grace Beahm Alford

The storm surge from Hurricane Hugo in 1989 marked the Charleston area’s most significant flooding event in recent memory — a natural disaster compounded by significant damage from 135 mph winds — but it’s important to recall that it was a series of lesser storms that struck Charleston and other coastal communities between 2015 and 2017 that thrust flooding to the No. 1 position on the city’s agenda.

It’s also important to recall the repetitive, damaging nature of those storms because they’re in fact more indicative of the risk in future decades — a risk that the city must actively prepare for if it hopes to survive in anything like its current form.

Yes, Charleston always has faced and always will face the potential for destruction from major hurricanes, a threat that returns at this time of year, as summer exits and fall arrives. But singular, once-a-generation disasters are in some ways less threatening than several or even dozens of damaging floods every few years. It’s one thing to recover from a major storm, but quite another to suffer yet another flood before people have recovered from the last one.

But given sea level rise and climate change, that increased threat is Charleston’s future, one its leaders soon must meet with a multimillion-dollar payout.

This was made clear last week when Chief Resiliency Officer Dale Morris briefed City Council on the status of work with the Army Corps of Engineers to build a protective barrier around the peninsula.

Mr. Morris told council that sea levels are projected to rise in the next 30 years as much as they have in the past 100, and that will increase the likelihood of significant flooding from any mix of tropical storms, extreme tides and heavy rain; we can expect that on average the water will be 14 inches higher by 2050. Floods of the sort that have occurred a few times in the past decade might occur more than a dozen times a year by 2050. “This is nuisance flooding, but if it occurs over and over and over again, the Charleston peninsula becomes unmanageable, possibly unsustainable,” he said. “This is baked in. This is coming at us. This becomes unsustainable if we do nothing.”

We urge Mayor John Tecklenburg to work quickly to take the next step, finalizing a design contract with the Corps of Engineers for preliminary engineering and design on the first phase of this work, which would extend the Low Battery around the Coast Guard Station and along Lockwood Drive toward The Citadel. And we urge City Council to approve that contract and allocate the $3.25 million, the first of two such payments toward the city’s share of the $19 million first phase of design.

This will be just the next step in a long journey, and it remains to be seen whether the peninsula barrier along Lockwood is popular enough that the city will then want to proceed to constructing it, but we are hopeful it will be. Just like the current work to raise the Low Battery has proven popular, partly because it’s more than flood protection — it’s also a great place to run, walk or fish.

And the city needs to find about $400,000 next year to fund its share of a joint study with the Corps of Engineers on rainfall and tidal flooding across the city — research that eventually could lead to the Corps picking up 65% of the construction costs for projects to address those problems (the same percentage it plans to cover for the peninsula’s protection). It’s vital that as city leaders work to protect the peninsula, they work equally hard to protect vulnerable suburban areas, especially by trying to harness as many outside dollars as possible.

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