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As Charleston sea wall plan heads through Congress, local doubts linger

 The sea wall would stretch more than 8 miles around Charleston's peninsula, a concrete fortress meant to keep the city from drowning in a hurricane.

It's among the highest-ranking projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, which says the $1.1 billion it's projected to cost will reduce the risk of damage from storm surge by more than 10 times its price tag. 

More than half of buildings on the peninsula, where the population is expected to double to nearly 70,000 people in the next 50 years, are within the 100-year flood plain. The projected yearly damages from coastal storms in Charleston is expected to reach as much as $773 million in the next half-century, according to the Corps.

The commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers has asked Congress to fund it, and the Corps' final feasibility report and environmental impact statement was published online earlier this month.  

The plan awaits congressional approval, which has passed in the House and is awaiting a vote later this year in the Senate. That would allow the city and the Corps to work on a design agreement and start hammering out the details of exactly where the wall would go and how it would look.

The initial plan calls for it to rise 8 feet above the level where the city starts to flood from high tides, with dozens of gates to let rainwater drain when tides are low. Pumps would help drainage when rising water in the harbor requires the gates to be closed.

Mayor John Tecklenburg said the project might be the best investment the city will ever make, one that addresses an existential crisis in Charleston as sea levels rise and hurricane seasons continue to be more active.

"I think most citizens in Charleston get it that the need is there long-term for protection," Tecklenburg said. "And as we design it, we'll have to communicate, yeah we think this project will accomplish our goal and our mission."

But some on the City Council remain leery of taking the next step to put up city money because of what they see as a flawed initial plan from the federal government and questions that remain: Is there a better solution? Will it ruin the iconic views of the water? Should the risk of a flood from a hurricane in the future outweigh the reality of flooding from rising tides and rainfall today?

"There's just so much out there that unless it's drastically amended, I don't think it's going anywhere," said Councilman Mike Seekings. "We're asking the wrong questions. What are our priorities? Is storm surge one of them? Yes. Is it the principal one? No. ... I think we need to prioritize our needs before we jump in and start spending."

The flooding issue

The Army Corps and Charleston leaders say once the city agrees to start paying for design, they can start figuring out how the wall could help address additional flooding problems and show people what it would look like.

One of the biggest criticisms of the wall idea is its scope. The project is only authorized to consider storm surge, not flooding caused by rising tides or rainwater. 

That factor, along with how the wall looks, the need for property acquisition and the impacts of construction are "areas of known or expected controversy" listed in the feasibility report.

Legislation known as the SHORRE Act — moving through Congress alongside the wall plan — would allow the project to directly consider risks beyond storm surge, like rising sea levels or flooding. 

Charleston flooded nearly one out of five days in 2019. Each of the past eight years ranks in the city's top eight years for flood days. Sea level rise is also accelerating. In Charleston, sea level rose 1.4 inches from 1920 to 2000, 2 inches during the next decade and 2.7 inches from 2010 to 2020, according to researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. It’s on pace to rise 3.2 inches this decade.

police flooding response.jpg (copy) (copy)

Rob Kramer talks with Charleston police who monitor flooded streets near Gadsden and Wentworth streets from the king tide on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020 in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Dale Morris, the city’s chief resiliency officer, said the city will work to integrate the wall with its other projects with or without the SHORRE act. That could include the city paying extra for larger pumps at spots along the wall that could help water drain regardless of how it enters the city. And just having a wall would help with tidal management because water wouldn't be as likely to spill over it. And the city hasn't stopped working on other pressing needs: It's spending more than $50 million a year on drainage projects aimed at reducing floods.

"If we reject this now, the Army Corps will go away and it is widely assumed we won’t get another shot at this unless there’s another big hurricane that damages the city significantly," Morris said. "This is an opportunity I don't think we can say no to just yet because of the storm surge risk the city faces."

The city is expected to pay 35 percent of the $1.1 billion price tag, or about $385 million. The design phase would cost the city about $17 million over three to four years. If approved, it would go in four phases, beginning from The Citadel to the Coast Guard station. If design begins, the wall would still likely be about a decade away from being built.

Councilman Robert Mitchell said he wishes more details about the wall were already clear, calling the requirement for the city to spend millions just to find out whether the wall can be designed in a way that works for Charleston a Catch-22 situation.

"We don’t know really where the money’s going to come from. Are we going to have to raise taxes for that? Are we going to have to float a bond? All these kinds of things are questions that haven’t been answered," said Mitchell, who acknowledged he doesn't love the idea of a wall ringing the city. "It’s going to get a debate. I have my reservations, but I haven’t made a decision."

Evolving design

The Corps tweaked the plan for the sea wall late last year in response to more than 400 public comments it received about the project. The expected cost fell from $1.8 billion to $1.1 billion, largely because the corps eliminated a $300 million breakwater structure outside the wall and reduced the amount of marshland that would be impacted from 111 acres to 35. Another change would put a pair of state port terminals behind the wall.

The Corps also added about 9,300 feet of oyster reef to the plan in response to public comments saying more natural methods should be considered. Environmentalists say it's not enough.

Tecklenburg also sent a letter to the Corps noting several areas the city wants to change during the design phase, including its four crossings over Lockwood Drive. Morris said those initial tweaks are a signal that the Corps is listening and willing to work with the city to make changes.

Unchanged in the plan: About 100 homes left unprotected by the wall, including in Rosemont and Bridgeview Terrace. The study found extending the wall that far up the peninsula was impractical.

Rosemont Neighborhood Pearl Planting Sunflowers.JPG

Pearl Wright, a resident of Rosemont in Charleston for 38 years, digs a hole to plant a sunflower delivered by her daughter the morning of Thursday, July 14, 2022. Rosemont is one of three areas highlighted by a recent report that includes homes not fully protected by proposed sea wall. Henry Taylor/Staff

The plan for those 100 or so homes is for the federal government to either pay to elevate or floodproof the homes or buy them and force the owners to move. The feasibility report says floodproofing and elevation would be the most likely methods to avoid buyouts that would disproportionately impact minority and low-income families.

Rosemont already deals with flooding linked to the sound wall that acts as a barrier between Interstate 26 and the community it cut through in the 1960s.

Skip Mikell, whose nonprofit group Charleston Community Research to Action Board has been monitoring flooding in Rosemont, said there are concerns that stopping the wall short of Rosemont could push tidal surges into the neighborhood and make flooding there worse. He said his group has also heard from other areas outside the peninsula concerned about whether the wall would send more water toward their homes as a side effect of protecting the peninsula.

"We want to make sure everybody knows that other areas will be impacted," Mikell said. "Until we see the final design, it's kind of hard for us to take a position."

Rosemont Flooding Skip Mikell Driving.JPG

Skip Mikell, chairman of the Charleston Community Research to Action Board, drives through Charleston's Rosemont neighborhood on July 6, 2022. Rosemont is one of three areas highlighted by a recent report that includes homes not fully protected by proposed sea wall. Henry Taylor/Staff

Former City Councilwoman Marie Delcioppo said she'd like to see the city finish its comprehensive water plan before moving ahead on wall design. She's not convinced spending the money on a storm that might come is wiser than devoting it to address areas already regularly underwater. Delcioppo hears from people worried about everything from the cost and the effectiveness to the appearance.

"I feel like there's a lot more questions than there are answers. I think that's where some of the hesitancy comes in," Delcioppo said. "It feels like we're jumping to a solution without really understanding the entirety of the problem."

The feasibility study says that glass panels like the one being used as a pilot on the city's Low Battery aren't effective enough and are too costly to consider for the entire structure, but might be employed in some spots during the design phase.

The corps hasn't released any designs, though one firm circulated a mockup based on the descriptions in the feasibility study. Tecklenburg said the city would walk away from the deal if the wall is ugly. He envisions a wall that in many ways looks like the Low Battery.

"If you go down there close to the Coast Guard station, that's what I see: An extension of that protection that also serves as a linear parklike feature that can in fact improve the public access to the waterfront," he said, adding that the city is committed to showing residents the wall can be designed with protection and aesthetics in mind. "Do we have to prove that going forward? Absolutely, and we should have to prove it."

Reach John Ramsey at 843-906-9351. Follow him on Twitter @johnwramsey.