All over the world, coastal cities are on the front lines of climate change: When you live and work next to the ocean, sea level rise is hard to ignore. All along the Atlantic seaboard, rising seas aren't just a future certainty: They're a present reality. Charleston, S.C., is one city that is grappling with the problem—and taking practical steps to address it, now and into the future.
Charleston journalist John Tibbets took a deep dive into the Charleston story for the national non-profit New City on November 7 (see: "When a City Stops Arguing About Climate Change and Starts Planning," by John H. Tibbetts). " Last month, Hurricane Matthew roared past the South Carolina coast, sending a 9-foot tide into the city and dumping heavy rainfall across the marshy low country. Abandoned cars stalled in downtown intersections where floodwaters lapped at their windows, and police blocked off dozens of streets," writes Tibbetts. "Yet the flooding of the historic City Market downtown—built on a long-ago filled creek bed—was surprisingly shallow." The reason? "A $23.2 million stormwater drainage system invested in by the small Southern city (population 132,000) [which] is part of a bigger strategy designed to prepare infrastructure for the hotter, wetter and more unpredictable climate of the future."
But that successful system is just a start on protecting the city from flood, and the $23 million cost is just a drop in the bucket compared with Charleston's long-term flood-control infrastructure needs—especially because, as Tibbets noted, "Despite its precarious coastal geography, the Charleston metropolitan region is growing fast. A population that is now 750,000 is expected to grow further over the next 12 years to hit 1 million, and housing is in high demand, especially along waterways that can swell and overflow in storms. As Charleston knows, protecting a single one of these neighborhoods from rising water will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars."
And accompanying that popluation growth, the city faces growing risk factors for flood: rising sea level and an increase in heavy rainfall events. "About three dozen times a year, the city of Charleston floods during king tides," wrote Tibbetts. "The floods block streets and shut down businesses for days at a time. A half century ago, Charleston averaged about four days of nuisance flooding a year. In 1995, Charleston had 18 flood days. Last year, it jumped to 38 days, according to recent studies by William Sweet, a NOAA oceanographer. In 30 years, Charleston will likely see 180 days of nuisance flooding."
Charleston is addressing flood hazards neighborhood by neighborhood, fighting a street-by-street battle against aging infrastructure and rising water. But money is a problem. City planners say they're focusing on devising solutions, and hoping that the money will eventually be there. Laura Cabiness, Charleston’s director of public services, said: "At some point the federal government is probably going to dedicate funding for communities that are getting ready for the changes we see coming. When [the engineers] have the design ready and we hear that there’s money out there, we’ll be ready.”