It only took a glancing blow from Irma to turn Charleston into Sea World, which gets everyone talking about the city’s horrible flooding problems. Again.
Hard to avoid the subject when there are whitecaps in White Point Garden.
But let’s get one thing out of the way: No drainage system could have stopped Monday’s onslaught of water.
The surge from Irma, which was about 4 feet, hit at high tide just a few days after a full moon. That is the very recipe for a perfect storm, and anyone who understands the term Lowcountry knew what would happen.
By all accounts, the city’s personnel handled it well.
Still, Charleston floods nearly every month. Streets from the West Side to West Ashley look like the set of Waterworld any time we get a storm at high tide.
Which is ridiculous.
Some of these problems are due to sea rise and climate change — you know, science.
And unfortunately, our forefathers chose some particularly low ground on which to build the Holy City. In their defense, the view is amazing.
But there are some things city officials could do to make this better.
All they need is a lot of money, and a change in state law.
Water, water everywhere
City Councilman Robert Mitchell wasn’t surprised to see the intersection of King and Huger turn into a pond Monday.
He’s been watching his neighborhood flood since he was a child. And he knows there’s only so much that can be done.
“We need to do what we can for all areas of the city that flood,” Mitchell says. “But when you have that kind of water coming in, there’s no place for it to go. We can spend money and it might help, but it isn’t going to solve the problem.”
He’s right. When the city is at sea level, and builds roads in former creek beds — the Crosstown and Water Street, to name a couple — you can expect some flooding. And when your stormwater system drains into a river overflowing its banks, you're just moving water around.
People are right, this is getting worse. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2014 found Charleston floods four times more often now than it did 50 years ago. Know what part of the problem is?
Ginny Bush, president of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, says the city's drainage system improvements have helped, but can only do so much when the peninsula is getting paved at a record pace.
“We need to keep as much permeable land, marsh and wetlands as we can,” Bush says. “We are just making it worse, I’m afraid.”
A lot of people have criticized the city’s pace of development for a lot of reasons over the years, none of them quite so valid as the environmental concerns.
After all, part of the reason Houston flooded so badly during Hurricane Harvey is because it’s hard to find a patch of ground there that isn’t paved.
There’s a lesson in that.
The root of all flooding
Some people would just as soon nary another building go up on the peninsula.
They’ve been saying that since Charleston Place. But it's too late for that.
Sure, the city is responsible for some of that development, but the city has less power to stop it than most people realize. There are property rights issues, guaranteed by state law. As the city found out the hard way in the Sergeant Jasper redevelopment.
Short of a controversial building moratorium, the only thing the city can do is continue its drainage program. Which isn’t moving fast enough for some — in 34 years, Robert Behre reported last week, they’ve done less than half the planned work.
The problem, of course, is money. Charleston has spent nearly a quarter-billion on drainage in three decades, which is about the size of its annual operating budget.
Moving any faster would require a massive tax increase or more money from the state or feds. And given the competition for cash after two major hurricanes in one month, that’s just not realistic.
State lawmakers could give cities more power to curb growth. But don't expect them to do that. It's hard to tell people what to do with their land when you don't want them telling you what to do with yours.
The city can only wish it was between a rock and a hard place here. Instead, it's between two rivers and an ocean — and barely sits higher than any of them.
The only thing to do here is for Charleston to move as quickly as possible on the Crosstown drainage system and then move on to the hospital district. Because this flooding is ridiculous.
But no matter what the city does, it's always going to flood some. Remember, Irma shut down Charleston for two days as a tropical storm meandering through Georgia.
Imagine what a direct hit would do.