AT WAR WITH Mother Nature
The seas are rising; its streets are flooding. Here’s how Charleston, South Carolina is trying to save itself
FOR THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, THE
sea level in Charleston Harbor has risen about an inch every decade. Now it’s rising about an inch every two years.
Charlestonians, no matter their political persuasion, know climate change is real. The city is among the most vulnerable in America to global warming, and offers a preview into what will be coming soon to a coastal community near you. The lesson of Charleston is that even when everyone agrees on the problem, getting to the solution is going to be difficult, expensive and never-ending.
Flooding has always been part of life in the Lowcountry. With much of the peninsula built on marshes reclaimed from the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, Mayor Henry Laurens Pinckney in 1837 offered a $100 gold coin to anyone who could solve the drainage problem. The Holy City kept flooding, and the mayor kept his gold coin.
But starting in 2015, a series of punishing hurricanes changed the conversation completely. Not only was Flood Street, which runs through the city’s poorest housing project, underwater as usual, but so were the iconic Charleston single homes south of Broad, the heart of the city’s historic district, and those in the voter-rich suburbs. A foot of water in your kitchen, not once but three times, is a radicalizing experience. This I know all too well. Raising houses, at $300,000 a pop, became a growth industry overnight.
Flooding, if not climate change, is the No. 1 issue in Charleston. In the last four years, the city’s piano-playing mayor, John Tecklenburg, was elected and re-elected by convincing voters he is best equipped to save the city from the rising seas. And Charleston, in fact, has upped its game after years of far too little progress. There was no choice: Much of Charleston’s tax base, its economy and culture, its very soul, are at risk. The cost of saving the place will be enormous; the cost of retreating and allowing it to be lost unthinkable.
The city brought in the Dutch to understand not their technical expertise but a new way of learning to live with water. It passed new rules about what can get built and where. It’s constructing a massive system of pumps and tunnels downtown. It is rebuilding and raising the historic Low Battery seawall and buying homes that have been flooded repeatedly and turning them into parks.
The big question remains: Where to get the money?
City Hall estimates it will cost $2 billion or more to deal with flooding—a huge number for a city with an annual budget of $200 million, more than half that dedicated to public safety. And in four years as mayor, Tecklenburg has raised little new money for flooding, save for a few million dollars a year by increasing storm water fees. Success or failure in the next four years and beyond will be measured by his ability to change that.
‘‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,’’ Tecklenburg, 64, likes to say.
His big bet is in persuading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study building a barrier around the peninsula. If the study—the final results are still two years away—concludes the costs are justified, the city could apply for as much as 65 percent in federal funding for the project. At this point, though, it’s no more than a bet.
“A foot of water in your kitchen, not once but three times, is a radicalizing experience.”
Charleston—no city, in fact—can solve its flooding crisis alone: It’s going to need county, state and federal help. And the city and the region, its leaders and residents, are going to have to make hard choices: billions for highways, for instance, or billions for flooding?
To save itself, Charleston must go to where the money is: the ever-rising tide of tourists. There are 8 million of them and 135,000 Charlestonians. You can’t raise property taxes enough to get from here to there. The math simply doesn’t work.
But South Carolina’s Tourism Industrial Complex is powerful, and Charleston has been at odds with the rest of the state forever. Most of the state thinks Charleston sees itself as better than them. Charleston agrees.
Despite routine declarations of an ‘’existential’’ threat facing Charleston, the early returns haven’t been promising. Tecklenburg’s attempt to reallocate some current tourism taxes to flood control rather than strictly tourism-related uses died in the legislature. When he suggested last month a head tax on cruise ship passengers, a popular idea among residents, the chief executive of the State Ports Authority said there was nothing to discuss.
All of these things and more must happen to save Charleston. Among them: The city needs to convince the legislature to allow it to add a hotel surcharge for a special flood fund in addition to the current 14 percent sales and hotel tax. Hotels, popping up on every vacant parcel downtown, raise rates every year on guests—and still they come. The city needs to raise rates, too. Maybe a few of those visitors from Ohio might stay home. But not many.
Mark Wilbert, the city’s “chief resilience officer,” says Charleston can be saved, one bite at a time. But he is a realist, too. The $2 billion (or more) might get the city through the first two generations of work. But then there are the third and fourth generations and beyond.
“I don’t think this will ever be over,” he says.