Charleston weighs the wall as seas rise and storms deepen

CHARLESTON, SC (AP) – Vickie Hicks, who weaves intricate sweet herb baskets in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic city market, remembers standing on the table at her grandmother’s booth in the center city ​​when the flood waters rushed.

Decades later, the seasoned seller of this art form passed down by descendants of West African slaves still works downtown, where merchants regularly set up sandbags and scrutinize the daily weather forecast. Hicks says the flooding has only gotten worse.

“God takes back his land,” she said.

Today, the low-lying Atlantic seaport is considering its most radical step yet to protect the lives and livelihoods of residents like Hicks from the threat of climate-induced flooding: isolating its peninsula from the ocean .

While residents recognize the need to act before Charleston is overwhelmed by the effects of climate change, many are not sure the wall will do enough to address flooding that goes beyond storm surges. Some oppose the separation of the city from its picturesque waterfront which attracts millions of visitors each year. Others fear that the wall will damage wetlands and wildlife, or that poor neighborhoods will be excluded from flood solutions.

Although Charleston has remained relatively unscathed this hurricane season, the city of 136,000 has experienced higher tides and wetter and more frequent rainstorms in recent years with climate change.

In 2019, the city center was flooded 89 times, a record, according to the National Weather Service – mainly due to high tides and wind pushing water inland. And the city could be flooded up to 180 times a year by 2045 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There is also the threat every year that a storm surge caused by a hurricane could flood the city’s peninsula, which sits at the confluence of three rivers and mostly less than 6.1 meters above level. of the sea.

Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a proposal for an eight-mile-long (12.9 km long) wall that would surround the peninsula and reach a height of 3.7 meters above the sea ​​level.

The barrier is reminiscent of the fortifications settlers built around Charleston 350 years ago to keep invaders out, but the Corps says the new wall is designed to keep out storm surges.

The agency’s proposal includes a floating breakwater offshore and some non-structural measures, such as raising houses not located behind the sea wall. The entire project is estimated at $ 1.75 billion.

The Corps has three years and $ 3 million to find a solution to the storm surges on the peninsula, although there is no guarantee yet that it will be funded and built.

The Charleston study is part of $ 111 million funded by Congress in 2018 to address coastal flooding and storm problems in 14 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The wall is one of many engineered solutions, along with the pumps, surge valves and dikes the Corps offers in cities such as Miami and Galveston, Texas.

Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s head of resilience, said the city needs to do something to deal with current flooding and plan for the future.

“Why the wall? Why now?” Wilbert said. “It’s about preparation. You know, it’s about preserving property and preventing lives lost for a future that we know will bring more frequent storms, more intense storms, in an area that we know very vulnerable to this.

The Corps plan, which requires city approval and cost sharing, has confused some residents who wonder why the city could seek a solution just for storm surges at the expense of other storm surges. floods.

The Corps says it is constrained by its congressional mandate, which does not address other sources of flooding on city faces, such as stormwater runoff. It is mainly run by the city.

A call for public comment this summer drew hundreds of responses.

Conservation groups said the proposal required more rigorous environmental review, as the wall would cut through water-absorbing wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Resoundingly, locals said they needed more time to make sense of the proposal that would enclose one of the city’s most distinctive features – the waterfront, with its oleander-lined promenade. , its pre-war houses, its fountains and its vast oak trees – from the port.

Trying to please everyone by expanding the scope of the wall may push project costs beyond viability, Wilbert said, noting that non-structural measures such as raising flood-prone homes could still provide a adequate protection for neighborhoods excluded from the plan.

The plan focuses on the peninsula, where the city’s economic engines are located – its historic downtown, tourist hub, and medical district – although some neighborhoods extend beyond.

The wall ends next to two mostly black neighborhoods – one a low-income apartment complex and the other a historic community called Rosemont.

The Corps said both estates were high enough to use other solutions, such as flood protection and homeowner buyouts. But Rosemont residents, many older people, cannot easily get around, said Nancy Button, president of the Rosemont Neighborhood Association, “Where are they going to go? she says.

Naomi Yoder, of the environmental policy organization Healthy Gulf, wondered if the money for the expensive engineering solutions the Corps offers in coastal towns could be better used to raise and fortify homes and to create disaster evacuation corridors. “Is there really a possibility for us to weather the storms?” Yoder said.

Whether the city builds the wall or not, the process has accelerated the conversation Charleston must have about sea level rise, said Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation.

“There is an advantage for the community to come together and have some soul-searching,” he said.


Michelle Liu is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on secret issues.

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