Days after insisting they had no idea how much it would cost to fully protect Charleston from damaging floods, city officials acknowledged they did have a number for the fix — and that price tag is huge.

City spokesman Jack O’Toole said on Monday that estimates put the cost of flood-proofing Charleston at more than $2 billion, and that work could take a generation to complete.

"This is not going to be done overnight, by any means," he said. "This is a generational challenge for the city."

The endeavor would include completing various drainage improvements, raising the Low Battery and extending the seawall along Lockwood Boulevard to Brittlebank Park — about $1 billion worth of work that would primarily be the city’s responsibility, O'Toole said.

There are no immediate plans to seek tax increases to pay for this work, and the city would seek outside grants and funding to offset that cost, he said.

The rest of the burden would likely fall on the state, which would be responsible for raising several roads and ensuring bridge access, as well as making upgrades to critical infrastructure such as the Medical University of South Carolina and the State Ports Authority. No detailed list for that work is available "because the state is ultimately in a much better position to delineate the projects and calculate the costs," O'Toole said. The $1 billion suggested price tag is a "rough estimate" prepared by the city's resilience director, Mark Wilbert, O'Toole said.

O’Toole’s remarks came a day after The Post and Courier reported comments from Public Works Director Laura Cabiness, who said officials had no idea how much the work would cost and had never prepared a detailed cost estimate.

“I just never felt the need to do that because the fact is money is coming in when it’s available and we are trying to focus on spending that money in doing the most cost-effective projects in the order that we can get them built,” she said last week.

O’Toole said Cabiness misspoke, basing her comments on the belief that it would be premature to release cost estimates without knowing how future inflation rates and regulatory issues might affect the final tally.

"Those can have a huge impact on the numbers and she didn't feel confident speculating," he said.

City residents have expressed growing frustration with the pace of the city's efforts to protect against rising seas and increased flooding, particularly on sections of the Charleston peninsula and in West Ashley where storm-related deluges have caused significant damage to homes, cars and other property three years in a row.

Most recently, storm surge from Tropical Storm Irma sent a deluge of mud and seawater into the heart of the tourism, medical and business districts — at one point knocking 111 streets out of commission.

Susan Lyons lives on Gadsen Street, not far from the medical district. She is furious about what she says is the city’s failure to take decisive action.

“My crawlspace and yard have been flooded four times in three years, and I am replacing ductwork for the third time,” she said, adding that the fabric of the neighborhood is at stake.

“Two on my block alone sold their houses last year, and three more are seriously considering getting out. This is an emergency, but no one at City Hall is hearing the sirens," she said. “This has profound implications for Charleston's prosperity and storied way of life."

A list released Monday afternoon by the city broke down the city's share of the projected work: 

  • $400 million to finish remaining improvements spelled out in city's 1984 flood study, including work on the Crosstown project, which is well underway, and the Calhoun West basin from the South Battery area to the medical district. About 63 percent of the work identified in that 33-year-old study remains uncompleted.
  • $100 million for work on the existing Battery seawall, depending on design.
  • $125 million to extend the seawall around to Brittlebank Park.
  • Up to $200 million for various West Ashley drainage and infrastructure improvements.
  • Up to $100 million for city portion of raising roads and critical infrastructure (principally city facilities, including police and fire stations).

City Councilman James Lewis said the state of South Carolina is responsible for many city streets, including flood-prone intersections such as King and Huger streets. That’s a particularly important choke point because it makes it more difficult for people from the northern peninsula to reach the hospital district in emergencies. “We need the state to step up to the plate and help us solve these problems.” 

Coastal South Carolina has already seen a foot of sea rise in the past century, and nuisance or “sunny day” flooding — when seasonal high tides cause flooding in low-lying areas — has increased in recent decades. Charleston averaged four days of tidal flooding 50 years ago. Last year, it was 50.

Sunday night, some low-lying streets in the city again saw significant nuisance flooding, especially near the city’s medical district. Police put up barricades on Ashley Avenue after saltwater covered the street. 

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme

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