Here’s your future: A tropical storm surge sends Charleston an urgent message
By Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith

Irma’s surge hit as if the sea had been shaken, a 4-foot slosh that poured over The Battery’s walls and crashed through dunes. It filled area marshes like an overfilled bathtub and turned the region’s most important medical complex into an island.

It was the third year in a row that vast swaths of the Lowcountry temporarily became ocean instead of land. And it was yet another wake-up call: Rising seas and other effects of a rapidly warming planet will force us to make hard and expensive decisions sooner than later.

Irma’s 4-foot surge brought our surrounding waters to roughly the same level many scientists believe our seas will reach in 80 years. Lower-end forecasts predict a 1.5-foot rise and higher-end ones come in at 8 feet and above. So, while Irma made a mess out of the present, it also provided us with a taste of an increasingly less distant future.

“We are on the front lines of the battle with sea rise,” said Ryan Fabbri, assistant administrator of Pawleys Island, where Irma’s surge wiped out dunes and filled roadways with thick carpets of sand. “We can all debate what is causing it, but the fact is it’s happening.”

Viability of neighborhoods and businesses are at stake. Statewide, more than 800 square miles of land are less than 4 feet above the high tide line. Roughly $24 billion in properties, including 54,000 homes, sit in this low land. Meantime, developers in this fast-growing region are eyeing new projects to meet the area’s growing population, potentially putting more properties and people in the water’s way.

The city of Charleston, once a national laggard in its efforts to manage the impacts of sea rise, is now emerging as a regional leader after a few years of playing catch-up. It has launched major studies and has several important drainage projects in the works.

But city leaders acknowledge that local, state and national rules need to be changed to protect the city. They admit Charleston still lacks proper zoning that takes into account the ocean’s moving boundaries. And after three straight years of superstorms and decades of nuisance floods, they still have no firm idea how much it will cost to keep the seas at bay — only that it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the mucky aftermath of Irma, the lack of answers infuriates many residents who have seen their homes trashed for the third year in a row — people like Gus Smith and her husband Richard.

They were trapped in their downtown Charleston home for several hours after Irma’s surge surrounded their property. She gets irate when she hears city officials say it may take 10 years to raise the nearby Battery seawall.

“That wall needs to be higher, and it needs to be done now,” Smith said from her mud-encrusted driveway. “We have to stop saying it’s a freak thing or that it’s a 100-year event. This is the way things are now. It’s the new normal, and we need to do something about it.”

An urgent decision

Charleston’s medical community was ready for Irma, a readiness based on decades of flooding experience. The district, which includes Roper Hospital, Medical University of South Carolina and the Veterans Affairs hospital, sits on the edge of the Ashley River. More than 30,000 workers and patients go to and from the area on a typical day. A thunderstorm can make many roads around and through it impassable. But Irma’s long bands of wind were something else.

Along with a high seasonal tide, these winds built a massive mound of water that poured into the city. Routes in and out of the medical district turned into swirling rivers. Just after noon, the National Weather Service issued an alert about a possible tornado near Fort Sumter and heading northwest. Roper Hospital staff scrambled to move patients and employees from one side of the building to another. The threat dissipated, but the surge kept coming. As high tide passed, water rose, and then mostly stayed put.

“Like the other hospitals here, we weren’t expecting the level of storm surge we received,” said Carolyn Donohue, Roper’s vice president and senior nurse executive. “We handled that surge well, but the biggest issue we had was that it did not recede in the timeline forecasted by the National Weather Service.”

Suddenly, Roper and MUSC had decisions to make: how to relieve their staffs, which had been working for 14 hours straight or longer. Some night shift staff arrived on their own by wading through murky water. One nurse showed up in her bathing suit. Around 6 p.m., Donohue called the National Guard.

Soon, night shift nurses and clinical staff climbed aboard armored personnel carriers at Food Lion off King Street. About 100 Roper and MUSC staffers crammed into four vehicles and convoyed to the medical district. Donahue choked up Wednesday when she talked about their arrival. Exhausted and relieved doctors and nurses cheered and clapped as the next shift climbed out of the National Guard vehicles.

“The National Guard told us, ‘You are our mission.’ ”

A pressing threat

The National Guard convoy was an example of hard decisions made in the heat of an emergency. But rising seas have created a slow-motion threat that’s only growing more urgent.

South Carolina already has seen a foot of sea rise during the past century. But in recent decades, rapidly increasing carbon dioxide levels have trapped more heat in our air and oceans, causing enormous amounts of ice to fall into the ocean. During the past four years alone, Greenland lost a trillion tons of ice.

Think of ice cubes being dropped into a cup of water. Put enough cubes in the drink and it overflows. That’s what’s happening at the earth’s poles, a distant event with real effects here.

Last year, Charleston had a record 50 flood days. In 30 years, the life of a typical mortgage, the city likely will see 180 days, or a flood every other day.

“The future is now,” said Norman Levine, a College of Charleston geology professor and director of the Low Country Hazards Center.

In 2015, Levine and his colleagues used satellite maps capable of pinpointing elevations to the inch. They found that 3 feet of sea rise would inundate nearly 9,400 buildings in Charleston County and flood 131,734 acres of land, or 34 percent of the county. He and other colleagues are currently doing a new study that will put a number on how many businesses in the area will be displaced because of increasing nuisance floods.

“Hurricanes remind us that we are the Lowcountry,” he said. “Yes we flood, and yes, we dry out quickly — I can’t tell you how many times I hear that, and it’s a great attitude to have. But soon it will happen so often that it will change the way we live here.”

That’s already happened for Elizabeth and Simon Kilminster, who manage Battery Carriage House Inn, a historic lodge with sweeping views of Charleston Harbor.

Irma’s surge inundated the inn, swamping the first floor with more than 3 feet of brackish water. It sent refrigerators bobbing, soiled carpets and fouled duct lines. They had only been open seven months since repairing similar damage from Hurricane Matthew last fall. And that followed more ruin brought on by the October 2015 floods.

“It’s even worse than last year,” Elizabeth Kilminster said, her sneakers making a sucking sound as she trudged through the mud-slicked lobby. “This will take months to fix.”

Her husband shook his head.

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in climate change needs to come to Charleston and see what is happening here.”

An old city’s response

In December 2015, the city released its sea rise strategy, its first comprehensive roster of sea-rise-related goals. Among them was the creation of a new job: chief resilience officer. Mark Wilbert, the city’s emergency management director, took on that new role in January.

Sitting in a room at the newly remodeled Charleston Gaillard Center, Wilbert could cite a list of major drainage improvements already in the works: the $154 million project to drain the Crosstown basin; continuing work in the Market Area.

He said more projects are needed, such as raising the Low Battery to meet the challenge of sea rise and possibly extending the seawall along Lockwood Boulevard to better protect the western side of the peninsula. The goal is to keep out as much water as possible and to drain flooded areas more quickly.

“But it’s never to be that we are going to keep the Atlantic Ocean out for good,” he said. “That’s not reality.”

Beyond stormwater tunnels, the city also needs to rethink land use planning, regulations and how to educate the public about what they can do on their own to make their properties less vulnerable. Hard questions also need to be asked about where new development should go, how it should constructed and which areas should be left to nature.

“We don’t want and we can’t build a wall around the entire city,” he said. “That’s not what we are about. That wall would be never-ending. … And who would want to live in a city like that?”

The city now has 17 departments working on a comprehensive “resilience” plan. City staff also plan to ask for about $200,000 in the next budget to hire consultants to study the vulnerability of the city to a range of threats, from sea rise to earthquakes. That study would likely take about a year, followed by an intensive discussion with the community about its priorities for protecting Charleston’s many treasures, Wilbert said.

Among the hardest questions: Who will pay for all this work?

Laura Cabiness, the city’s Public Services director, has helped oversee the city’s drainage upgrades since 1990. She said the city spends more than $8 million a year to improve drainage. But the city has many other needs, as well.

“In order to build this infrastructure and support it, you’ve got to have a thriving city, you’ve got to have a growing economy,” she said. “If you abandon those things, your economy starts to wither and then you can’t take care of your infrastructure and you begin to have blight.”

Over the past 34 years, Charleston has spent $239 million on drainage projects and is less than halfway done with a punch list of needed work identified in a 1984 study.

How much more would the city have to spend to do all the drainage work that is needed?

Cabiness said she doesn’t know, other than it would certainly be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A sense of frustration

Such answers don’t sit well with Charleston residents who have had their homes swamped by floods for three years running. Many grumble about the pace of the city’s efforts to address the flooding problem. And some have questioned why the city continues to sink tax dollars into projects such as the $143 million renovation of the Gaillard Center when flood control remains such a dire problem.

Randy Harley is a retired electrical contractor who lives on Winners Circle in West Ashley’s Hickory Farm subdivision. He lost four cars, a riding mower and thousands of dollars’ worth of tools in the 2015 floods. The duct work he replaced got ruined when his home flooded again in Hurricane Matthew last year. Then Irma came calling and saturated his home again, wrecking dry wall and molding.

Harley managed to get most of his valuables off the ground before the high waters arrived. But at age 75, he wonders how much longer he will be able to haul his stuff to safety.

Harley has heard city officials talk for years about the limits of their funding and ability to correct the flooding problems. He’s tired of hearing their excuses and wondering why all the money his neighborhood pays in tax dollars and stormwater fees haven’t translated into a fix of some sort.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “And they haven’t done a damn thing.”

City officials say they are working on the problem, but Harley doesn’t buy it.

“That’s a lie,” he said. “And I will call them liars to their face.”

A widespread need

Harley and others in West Ashley blame overdevelopment in the Bees Ferry area for much of their problems. Land that once absorbed water is now paved, resulting in flooding on their properties.

It’s not just a downtown Charleston issue. Dozens of homes around the Lowcountry have been swamped in recent years by rising waters in places that once were relatively dry. North Charleston, Hanahan, Mount Pleasant, Summerville. The list goes on.

And amid the rising seas, more people than ever flock to the South Carolina coast. Charleston’s population is growing at three times the national average. From Myrtle Beach to Beaufort, large new developments are growing like mushrooms after a hard rain, which bothers people like Phil Dustan.

Dustan is a marine biologist with the College of Charleston who lives on Johns Island off River Road. He recently studied detailed satellite and aerial maps of Johns Island, which show that it once was a series of sand dunes. Until recently, development and farming on the island happened mostly on the crests of those old dunes. Now, investors have targeted low-lying land on the island, including a large tract next to his house.

It’s about 100 acres next to a marsh creek. Despite its rural location, the land was zoned light industrial, a classification city officials believe was related to its location next to the island’s airport. Under that zoning, owners could build 1,726 residential dwelling units. The developer, Synchronicity, has asked the city to down-zone it to residential, which would allow more than 300 homes.

If approved, the city’s planning department will make “a mockery” of even its more recent growth control plans over “a land-grab rezoning request that will make it perfectly OK to build hundreds of homes full of families, pets and their possessions directly in harm’s way the next time even a small hurricane grazes us,” Dustan said. He started a petition to oppose the rezoning. It has almost 2,000 signatures.

City staffers agree that current zoning in many areas is outdated, but making wide-ranging changes is no easy task. It took more than two years for Charleston to change its height restrictions. And any move that reduces property values could trigger legal challenges, said Jacob Lindsey, the city’s planning director.

“We have an antiquated zoning system that we need to come to terms with,” he said. “We don’t have the tools we need right now to do this. But we will have them.”

Charleston’s long history complicates these plans.

Paul Gayes is the director of Coastal Carolina University’s school of coastal and marine systems science in Conway. While rising seas will affect the entire South Carolina coast, Charleston is particularly vulnerable because it has been densely settled for a long time in areas susceptible to rising waters. Historical protections in place now, such as The Battery, were designed for a different time when risks and sea levels were lower.

Future risks are changing because the climate is changing. Though the future may seem far off, Gayes said, delaying action to manage these risks isn’t a solution. “It’s too easy to say everything is too expensive and not do it.”

Now, with another hurricane come and gone, questions still linger like the pungent smell of the mud Irma left behind: Will the Lowcountry’s residents, businesses and governments guard the area’s rich history with a sense of urgency that leads to action?