Charleston got two very loud wake-up calls last week, and this is no time to hit the snooze button.

First, a series of record king tides flooded the city, paralyzed part of the peninsula for three days and even floated a 75-foot shrimp boat stuck in the pluff mud for five years. And there was barely a cloud in the sky.

Then, on Tuesday, the top brass of the Army Corps of Engineers urged City Council to help the federal government save Charleston from sinking into the ocean.

Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, South Atlantic division commander for the Corps, reported that building a sea wall to protect the city from catastrophic storm surge is the Corps’ top priority in the Southeast.

“In simple terms, for every dollar invested, $10 could be prevented in future damages,” Kelly said. He noted the benefit-cost ratio of a Charleston sea wall is significantly higher than the payoff for saving even Miami or Norfolk.

Both are reminders of just how valuable Charleston is — and just how much danger it’s in. The Corps is not known for being frivolous about major infrastructure projects.

As Kelly noted, the Corps’ calculus doesn’t take into account the city’s beauty, historical significance or value to the economy. This isn’t about politics. It is simply about the expected costs associated with inevitable disaster clean-up here.

Because every model, forecast and predictor at the federal government’s disposal suggests that within the next 50 years, Charleston will suffer at least one Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy-level disaster. And without a sea wall to mitigate the damage, and minimize the flooding, the city could be wiped out.

“The biggest storm surge of the past century was Hugo, and it was a miss” since it made landfall north of the city, says Dale Morris, the city’s chief resilience officer. “If that hurricane had hit Kiawah, we’d have had twice as much water in Charleston.”

Not all of them will miss.

In the next couple of months, City Council will have to decide whether to move into pre-engineering and design on a potential sea wall with the Corps. That would determine exactly what a wall would look like and how it would work.

Taking that step wouldn’t commit Charleston to building a sea wall. But if council members take a pass on the opportunity, the warnings and the promise of two-thirds federal funding, perhaps they should be committed.

Consider this:

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  • Although the Corps’ proposed sea wall is meant to protect Charleston from catastrophic storm surge, it would also mitigate tidal flooding. If the sea wall had been in place last weekend, Morris notes, the city wouldn’t have flooded.
  • A sea wall is expected to cost $1.2 billion. If the city sends the Corps packing but later decides it’s needed, the cost to every person in Charleston would come out to more than $8,000. Each.
  • For most of the past century, Charleston saw flooding like this past weekend once or twice a year. In the past six years, it’s up to 8-10 times. With seas continuing to rise, Morris fears the number could go up to 20-30. Or, once every other week.
  • The research for pre-engineering and design includes data Charleston must collect anyway as it continues to improve stormwater drainage. If council moves forward, even without committing to the wall, the feds pay two-thirds of that cost.

And if we don’t, City Council might eventually look like extras in the first half-hour of a disaster movie.

No one denies Charleston has serious flooding problems, but there’s no guarantee council will take the offer because some residents have concerns about the potential size and aesthetics of a sea wall.

They hear “wall” and think Pink Floyd stage show.

But 12 feet is the height from the mean low water mark, and it would look more like 6 feet at Brittlebank Park, maybe 4 feet along Lockwood Drive. Some argue it would ruin the city’s beauty and views. Conversely, there’s no view from Lockwood if there’s no Lockwood.

The pre-engineering and design would answer those questions, even factor in the possibility of making the wall into something like an extended Battery.

Then there’s the question of cost. Charleston’s share of the wall might approach $400 million. Why not see how the ongoing stormwater and drainage projects work first? But we’re talking about two different things here.

“The Dutch have a saying, ‘It’s not either/or, it’s and/and,’” Morris says.

Basically, if Charleston is going to remain dry, we need to do it all.

Mayor John Tecklenburg says the Corps is offering Charleston a “game-changing deal” and he hopes council will take that next step.

“The federal government is looking at this as a way to save money,” Tecklenburg says. “That speaks to both our value and the danger we face.”

The mayor notes Charleston has spent a century preserving its past. Now it’s time to start preserving its future.

It’s that simple.

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