Irma

Richard Smith and his wife Gus Smith clean up after the flooding from Tropical Storm Irma in 2017. That storm led to $3 million in federal funding so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could study how to reduce the peninsula's flood risk. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

In the future, peninsular Charleston could be braced from storm flooding by breakwaters, tide gates, pumps and enhanced marshes.

Those were some of the options presented to the public for consideration Thursday evening by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is launching a three-year, $3 million study of possible protections for the historic city.

The study will focus on reducing future storm risks downtown, and its recommendations could pave the way for new federally funded projects, but that is not a given.

"There's no guarantee, no guarantee of federal money for anything we come up with, but folks, this is the pathway, the opportunity for us to get there, and that's why it's so critical," Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said at the meeting. 

About 60 people perused the presentation Thursday, and they later got a chance to talk with some of the corps' experts. Members of the public also may comment with cards and or online at arcg.is/00aCj9.

Army Corps of Engineers Col. Jeffrey Palazzini provided an outline of the study and what's at stake.

"We work right here. There's flooding right here sometimes," he said of the Corps' Charleston office. "This is near and dear to our hearts."

Flooding is such an important consideration to Linda Clement, who attended the Thursday meeting, that when she recently decided to move, she studied the historic Halsey Map, which shows the location of Charleston's creeks and streams that have been filled in over time on the peninsula — areas where it is most likely to flood. 

Clement ended up landing in Wagner Terrace, a big improvement from a former neighborhood downtown where the streets on either side of her house would flood, she said. 

"I wanted to stay on the peninsula, so I educated myself," Clement said. 

But she added that further study on where to put flood protections should take into account the poorer populations of the city, which might be less able to afford measures themselves to mitigate flooding.

No specific proposals were presented at the meeting, though several general categories of flood mitigation, ranging from highly-engineered floodgates to "living shorelines" buffered with planting, were posted on the wall and used with discussion fodder with attendees. 

Already, the city is working on some massive projects to offset flooding, including the Crosstown drainage project and the raising of the Low Battery sea wall by sea wall by 2½ feet. 

Tecklenburg said that in the future, it may make sense to further extend barriers around the peninsula. 

"Charleston peninsula will need to have some perimeter protection in addition to the drainage systems, pump systems the city is currently engaged in putting in place," he said. "In my mind, you need to extend that around the peninsula ... this study is going to take that concept and really apply it, does it really make sense?"

During the next year, Palazzini said the corps' engineers, economists and planners will scope out the pros and cons and cost effectiveness of the different ideas.

Their work is expected to be presented to the public early next year for further feedback.

"There's certainly no recommendations yet," Palazzini said. "There are a lot of analyses that are going to be done."

The study not only will look at possible structural fortifications, such as the city's current project to raise the Low Battery, but also elevating or relocating structures. The ultimate recommendations could include a mix of both.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently wrapped up a similar $3 million study of the Norfolk, Virginia area.

It broke that metro area into four sections, and its recommendations included extending existing floodwalls to protect Norfolk's economic core and creating a new storm surge barrier to reduce flooding in the Lafayette River watershed.

The study, which was completed last year, also recommended several nonstructural steps, including basement fills, elevating structures, and buyouts.

The Charleston study is expected to be completed in 2021.

The work will be "just a piece of a complex puzzle of Charleston preparing for our future and dealing with the challenge of flooding and sea level rise," Tecklenburg said. "It's not just the peninsula, it's West Ashley, it's James Island, it's Johns Island."

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.

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