AT WAR WITH Mother Na­ture

The seas are ris­ing; its streets are flood­ing. Here’s how Charleston, South Carolina is try­ing to save it­self

Newsweek - - Adaptation - by STEVE BAI­LEY Steve Bai­ley writes a col­umn for the charleston post and courier. He can be reached at sjbai­[email protected]­


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.

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