Tourists are attracted to Charleston not just for its history, but also for its beautiful ocean views and beach access. But the ocean’s rising levels also pose a major threat to coastal cities like Charleston, especially when they combine with large rain events like the hurricanes the city has weathered over past years. Since 2014, Charleston’s streets have been flooded consistently more often, from 11 days in 2014, to 38 days in 2015 and 50 days in 2016.
Cathryn Zommer, Executive Director of Charleston-area nonprofit Enough Pie, said this figure is predicted to continue growing— to alarming levels. This spring, Enough Pie held an initiative called Awakening V: King Tide, a collaboration of artists and scientists to raise community awareness of the problem through public art, lectures, and other events. With the prospect of sunny-day flooding 180 days a year by 2045, Zommer says the organization wanted to help residents understand what’s coming “so we can have our eyes wide open and make some changes in our behaviors.”
Charleston’s Sea Level Rise Strategy
The responsibility for the city’s response to sea level rise (SLR) largely falls to Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s Chief Resilience Officer. He is charged with leading the city’s effort to fulfill its official Sea Level Rise Strategy, which was signed into effect by former Charleston mayor Joseph Riley in 2015, shortly after South Carolina experienced especially severe flooding from the rains of Hurricane Joaquin. According to Wilbert, the amount of damage that could be done by future flooding is still unknown; the only sure bet is that the floods will come. That’s why the city’s strategy focuses on reinforcing infrastructure to better withstand floods.
The strategy has three main goals: “Put in place systems that prevent or reduce the impacts of SLR and significant rainfall; ensure public safety given flooding potential; ensure community and economic viability and recovery given flooding potential.”
More than $200 million has already been spent toward the initiative, but the city anticipates the investment will pay back by mitigating future damage to the economy, whether through keeping the area attractive for the tourism industry or through wages and productivity that, if the strategy is successful, won’t be lost due to future flooding. According to Zommer, these investments fill a deep need, as Charleston is already seeing the effects of increased flooding.
“When the waters come we are very much stopped,” she said. “If it affects our ability to go to work, it affects our ability to get around, so it already has impact, and it’s going to increase every year.”
Zommer has already experienced this impact in her own workplace.
“My office building, when it floods, we actually have…a plank that’s set up out there, because it becomes a river,” she said. “I mean, you cannot walk from the building to your car without being in six inches of water, so we actually have sort of a metal plank that we walk when it rains.”
“An Opportunity Right Now”
Wilbert said the city’s response to the threat will be decided by documented statistics and a strict city plan, which will include, eventually, stricter building code standards.
“We’re a long way from saying, you can or can’t build where it is, but we may not be far away from saying how you build there,” he said. “So if you want to build over here, which we know will be extremely wet in the future, you may have to build to a higher set of standards, so that, one, you’re safe; two, so that we can come and get you should we need to in an emergency; and three, that we can continue to provide services.”
However, just as more floods have been observed, so have higher tides, which Wilbert said are a major symptom of the overall sea level rise, and potentially a real issue for the city.
“What is a fact is that the tides have risen a foot in Charleston in the last 100 years, and a foot of high tide begins to encroach in areas where it didn’t encroach 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago or maybe even 25 years ago.”
Wilbert said the rising sea is a threat that the city will likely never get ahead of, but rather an issue that will have to be continually managed with carefully considered actions that make sense for the whole Charleston area.
“We have an opportunity right now to decide what the future of Charleston’s gonna look like,” said Wilbert. “No one’s gonna stop the seas from rising, and if we get started now, then we have an opportunity to shape what it looks like, and we can make it much better than if we didn’t do anything.”