Lowcountry Mayors Unite in Fight Against Sea Level Rise

Apr 27, 2018

The Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park overlooking the Beaufort River
Credit Victoria Hansen

Both have historic homes, waterfront parks and battery walls,  as well as  reputations for hospitality.  Charleston was named the  best southern city this year by Southern Living Magazine.  Last year, Beaufort was awarded best small town.  But that’s not all these two Lowcountry communities have in common.

“We’re sort of like brothers,” said Beaufort Mayor Keyserling.  He’s referring to his life-long, family friendship with Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg.  Their cities may be 70 miles apart, but the two catch up by phone at least once or twice a week.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg
Credit City of Charleston

“We share the joys and challenges of being mayor,” said Tecklenburg.  “We also share information in particular about flooding and ways to deal with that challenge.”  Tecklenburg made flooding  and  the threat of sea level rise Charleston’s top priority as part of his state of the city address this year.  A native of Charleston,  he was elected mayor in November of 2017.  He previously served as the city’s director of economic development.

Mayor Keyserling, meantime, is also a native of his Beaufort community.  He’s served as mayor since 2008.  Previously, he worked in Washington, D.C. providing administrative and legislative duties for members of Congress.  He’s also served in the S.C. House of Representatives and on Beaufort city council.  These days he spends a lot of time traveling, learning all he can about the threat of sea level rise to coastal communities like his own.

Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling
Credit Victoria Hansen

“What we learned from the hurricanes was productive,” said Keyserling.  “We came to realize how integrated the water issue is.”  Like Charleston, Beaufort has endured three years of bad weather from the 2015 record floods to Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.  They too found salt water from those storms making its way into their drainage systems.  Now even a king tide can spell trouble.   “As the creek rose, it moved almost a quarter of a mile inland,” said Keyserling.

Keyserling has put together a citizen advisory team to figure out which parts of the town are most at risk.  He’s also closely following what Charleston is trying, a valve system to allow storm water to move out but not let tides in.  Engineers have been testing it on parts of the city’s aging system water system and Mayor Tecklenburg says on some troublesome streets, they’ve already seen success.  “At a real high tide you would have water bubbling up through the storm drain and no more.”

Charleston has also seen a rise in so called nuisance floods.  That’s flooding caused not by rain, but tides.  It’s thought to be a calling card of sea level rise which scientists predict could be at least three feet by the end of the century.  That’s why the city has hired a full time resilience officer and will begin raising its lower battery wall this summer.  Historic homes downtown are also being allowed for the first time to elevate.  Mayor Tecklenburg even invited a Dutch delegation to tour the city and offer advice.  “Where else in the world have people been successful in dealing with flooding more so than the Netherlands,” he said.

Charleston battery where lower wall will be raised
Credit Victoria Hansen

Mayor Keyserling says he no longer debates climate change.  He simply invites people to come see what's happening.  Even at his own home, he says the water is coming up onto the dock and the floating dock is even higher than the main one. “I wonder why storm water and sea level rise are treated as many pre-diabetics treat diabetes.  They deny it.”

Keyserling says he’d rather prepare and that’s exactly what he’s doing.  He too is considering raising Beaurfort’s sea wall and is thinking about elevating historic homes.  Although, he believes raising them doesn’t necessarily save them if roads are so flooded no one can get to them.  He says his community’s situation is not as urgent as Charleston’s because they have more high ground and are built on less fill.  Still, he’s worried about the future.

“That’s why I spend so much time learning, talking, traveling, sharing with others from around the country,” Keyserling said.  It’s also good to have a friend up the road.