Keeping History Above Water

Posted: January 12, 2018

By Winslow Hastie

The 2nd Annual “Keeping History Above Water” conference was held in late October in Annapolis, MD. Hosted by the Newport Restoration Foundation, it is the only conference in the United States that focuses on sea level rise and historic preservation. I had been invited to present on Charleston’s experience with Tropical Storm Irma, and how the city was addressing impacts of flooding and sea level rise. This topic is obviously top-of-mind for many in the Charleston community, particularly in the downtown historic district. Irma represented the third major flooding event in three consecutive years, and historic property owners have become irate and exhausted. Sea level rise is no longer an abstract concept for homeowners in Charleston. It now conjures indelible images of waves crashing over the Low Battery, rivers of water coursing through our streets, stinky mud and debris caked on buildings for weeks, and piles of sodden ductwork and ruined appliances lining our sidewalks. Add to these major events the fact that we now have 40 days of nuisance flooding a year (and are projected to see over 180 days of sunny day flooding by 2040), and we undoubtedly have a massive problem. To be clear, “nuisance flooding” just means larger high tides that flood our streets, making entire sections of the peninsula inaccessible for hours at a time and exacerbating our congestion problems!

Key takeaways from this conference may seem bleak, but they’re important to know: new NOAA data reveals that projections from even a year ago are woefully conservative and that we should plan for even higher sea level rise than previously anticipated; across the country, historic resources are almost always being left out of hazard mitigation strategies; and most communities—even the most progressive—are so behind on this issue that there really aren’t tested case studies or templates for how best to prepare for this immense natural phenomenon. And, there really are only three steps that any community can take to confront sea level rise: armor, adapt, or abandon. To armor is to construct physical barriers to water and improve stormwater infrastructure; to adapt is to determine mitigation strategies that allow the city to live with floodwater; to abandon is just that—leave the low-lying areas of your community and move to higher ground.

Upon my return from Annapolis, Historic Charleston was invited to participate in a workshop held by the city of Charleston on the development of standards for elevating historic buildings. This day-long session included preservationists, architects, contractors, engineers, and city staff. Due to the paradigm shift that has occurred in this community after three catastrophic flooding events in the last three years, there was immediate consensus that the old rules no longer apply. We have to be more flexible in allowing certain property owners to raise their buildings, particularly if they’ve suffered repeated flooding—greater flexibility in this regard will ensure that these buildings can be preserved into the future. While the process is still under way, I believe that the city must also provide technical assistance for property owners that can’t elevate their buildings (because of financial or technical reasons) so that they can mitigate damage from future flooding events. There are many resources that provide floodproofing tips that are very useful, but it would be helpful to have them compiled and perhaps tailored to our Lowcountry environment.

Another aspect of this issue that has not received due attention in this conversation is flood insurance. It is now common knowledge that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is insolvent. The decades of subsidized flood insurance are coming to an end, and the specter of massively increased rates are on the horizon. Also, if a property has filed four insurance claims since 1978 worth more than $5,000 each and two of the claims payments were made within the past 10 years, then that property becomes what is referred to by FEMA as a Severe Repetitive Loss (SRL) property. SRL property owners have a more difficult time obtaining insurance, and, even if they can, the rates could be astronomical. Given that we had Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when most properties in the historic district filed insurance claims, and then the last three catastrophic fall weather events that we’ve suffered, the likelihood of downtown Charleston containing many SRL properties is alarmingly high. This issue must be factored into any local discussions around flooding and sea level rise.

While determining the top priorities for flooding infrastructure is a political minefield, no one can debate the importance of the downtown historic district to our regional economy. The city has certainly started to devote more resources towards resiliency by adding four new full-time positions that will focus on this issue: a Chief Resiliency Officer, a grantwriter, an emergency management assistant, and a floodplain manager. It is also admirable that the city has funding for a “Vulnerability Assessment” in the 2018 budget, and that will serve as an important guide for the allocation of limited resources, however, we cannot delay pushing at all levels of government for more funding. We must harden the peninsula; first, by retrofitting and elevating the Low Battery while also constructing a seawall along Lockwood Drive. Second, we clearly need to address flooding in the Church Creek Drainage Basin in West Ashley, per the recent study that the city commissioned. Third, we must tighten our development standards to ensure that adequate permeable surfaces are created or retained and that low-lying areas are not filled in. There are just some areas of the city that should not be developed—parts of John’s Island and outer West Ashley come immediately to mind! Obviously, the current and planned drainage improvement projects at the Crosstown and the Calhoun West area of the city must continue, and quickly.

There are many opinions in our community about how to address flooding and how to pay for it, however, this will be no easy task. The city has circulated a figure of $2 billion for comprehensively addressing flooding across the entire city. Capital improvements of that magnitude will require a layering of financing from multiple sectors. We should continue to seek federal grants, as we have in the past, particularly for our large stormwater drainage and pumping projects. We should work with our state legislature to determine how to get funding from the State Infrastructure Bank for critical infrastructure other than highways. As citizens, we should be open to an increase in our stormwater impact fees on our water bills to help pay for these projects. We can also float large municipal infrastructure bonds. And, we need to determine the right formula for using our Accommodations Tax money to go towards the retrofit of Low Battery and the creation of a Lockwood Drive seawall. If that requires changes in state law, then we all need to be spending more time in Columbia.

Let’s get to work.