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A storm drain on Halsey Street on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Charleston staff learned earlier this year that all of the street's drainage pipes have collapsed. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Residents of flood-prone Halsey Street next to Charleston's hospital district have long been wary of hard rains and high tides.

But it wasn't until January that city crews discovered why flooding was so bad: every single drainage pipe beneath the 500-foot street was collapsed. 

"They determined that there was nothing but flat pipes, just flattened, the whole length of the street," said Margaret Peery, who lived on the street for six years until this spring.

"From the sidewalk to the pipe in the center of the street, just nothing," she said.

It began as Charleston crews were using a camera to check the condition of lines nearby, city Director of Stormwater Management Matthew Fountain said, and moved on to check those under Halsey.

The street has a central drainage line with connections to 12 catch basins.

While they were able to enter the pipes for a few feet, they eventually hit a solid wall of rock or debris.

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A contractor's photo of a blocked pipe on Halsey Street, taken in December 2018, when workers were just discovering drainage issues there. Provided/ Cliff Roberts.  

Part of the issue is the pipes are terracotta clay, a material that's endemic to older sections of the peninsula and prone to collapsing entirely when one section is damaged, Fountain said.

Terracotta was a popular pipe material at the beginning of the last century because it was cheap and light, said Christina Butler, an architectural historian who is working on a book about the history of Charleston's drainage.

But it's also brittle, meaning it doesn't fare well in environments like Halsey Street, which has poor soil because it was a former sawmill.

"I would guess they didn't compact the fill very well when they developed that area, so as the fill is settling, the pipes are settling with it," Butler said, "and the connections will break."

Some of old infrastructure can be put to good use, however, since the city is working on rehabilitating brick arches that were in fashion before clay pipes.

Aside from the age of the infrastructure, there's another common issue affecting Halsey Street: it's technically under the state's jurisdiction, not the city's. So while Charleston crews found the blockage, it's up to the S.C. Department of Transportation to fix it. 

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Halsey Street during an April rainstorm in 2017. Provided/Cliff Roberts. 

For Charleston to designate some of its drainage improvement money to Halsey Street would mean delaying another project elsewhere, Fountain said.

The work, which would have to be bid out, could reach as high as $500,000 with a contractor.

DOT staff will be able to make the fix for as little as $100,000, Assistant District 6 Maintenance Engineer Raymond Molinaroli said.

The price is so reduced because the state can use its own staff instead of farming the work out to a private contractor.

Crews started working on the street in late June but they encountered a new problem on their first day: there was a live gas line that had to be moved before they could continue the work. Dominion is scheduled to move that line by mid-August, spokesman Paul Fischer said.

Then, the pipe replacement will take another six weeks to complete. 

Those on Halsey Street were hopeful that timeline holds firm.

"I'm sure we're not unique, but we're anxious to get it fixed," said Priscilla Wendt, a 13-year resident.

Still, many on the street said some of the flooding there has lessened since Charleston installed check valves in its drainage system, which allows water to flow down but stops higher tides from seeping up through the pipes. 

Fixing the remaining drainage issues shows the tangled web that must be navigated as aging infrastructure fails. 

"It's a lot of entities and they're all doing what they can," said Cliff Roberts, a resident of the street who has become the informal go-between between work crews and his neighbors.

"It's not a streamlined process whatsoever," Roberts said. "It's herky-jerky."

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.