High tides led to spotty coastal flooding around the Charleston region Wednesday morning, an event that didn't cripple the region's traffic but served as the most recent example of the Holy City's new normal.
Several problem areas were inundated, including the exit from the Ashley River Bridge to S.C. Highway 61 in West Ashley, southern portions of Lockwood Drive downtown, and Hagood Street between Fishburne and Line streets.
The Septima P. Clark Parkway, a crucial artery through the heart of the city that can get swamped in an intense rain, stayed dry, as did the chronically poor-draining intersection of King and Huger streets. That reflected the nature of the day's flooding was more from high tides than rainfall.
The confluence of strong northeast winds pushing water into the shore and a near-full moon combined to raise the tidal gauges in Charleston Harbor just above 8 feet, a level the National Weather Service considers major flood stage.
"Typically with those high astronomical factors, that's what really gives us a boost," NWS Forecaster Emily McGraw said, though an 8-foot tide "is certainly pretty rare."
Rising water infiltrated the city though some storm drains, creeks and marshes. The flooding stopped short of some of the city's worst episodes, however, because there wasn't much rain on top of it. Less than half an inch of rain fell Wednesday morning.
During the last three decades, Charleston has seen tides of 8 feet or higher; more than half of them took place in the past four years, McGraw said.
The prospect of rising sea levels driven by climate change promise to make the phenomenon even more frequent. The recent Fourth National Climate Assessment projected that Charleston's tidal flooding — sometimes called "sunny-day flooding" or "nuisance flooding" — could occur as often as every other day by 2045.
Every time conditions point to flooding, it becomes an "all hands on deck effort" for city employees, said Mark Wilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Charleston.
Wilbert and Emergency Management Director Shannon Scaff were scheduled to attend an emergency response conference in Myrtle Beach but stayed behind to prepare for the tides.
On Tuesday, city departments met to discuss their plans, and Scaff met with representatives of the local universities and hospitals, too.
"That helps to get the (whole) city on the same page," Wilbert said.
Then, the city did something it hasn't for a few years: It issued its own travel advisory, warning commuters about flooding at specific intersections. It's an effort the city is going to refine, Wilbert said, but it may be more difficult to issue warnings in situations when unexpectedly heavy rains take the region by surprise.
"This one was well-advertised, well-expected," Wilbert said. "There’s going to be those unexpected incidents where it just may happen and we just may not have the information."
In some areas, the city's check valves, which allow water to flow out of storm drains but not rise back up, helped keep problem areas dry. That, combined with an improved berm on the side of Morrison Drive staved off flooding there, Wilbert said.
In the morning, police coordinated to blockade flooded roads. The city sent out teams with vactor trucks, which can suck up and store water. The teams also focused on clearing storm drains so there was nothing blocking them when the tide receded.
By 11 a.m., most roads had reopened.
'Used to it'
High tides disrupted not only the Charleston peninsula but briefly closed Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant, seeped into back yards through Folly Beach's marshes and even covered the causeways connecting Pawleys Island to the rest of the Grand Strand.
The perfect stew of conditions that led to Wednesday's flooding have become familiar to coastal residents like Patricia Owens.
Owens has lived at Charleston's Beaufain and Barre streets for 15 years, just a few lots away from where one resident recently decided to demolish her repeatedly flooded home. Owens has never had floodwaters reach above the first step to her porch, but she often has seen water run in a stream from the marsh behind her house to the street.
“You kind of get used to it,” Owens said. “The trouble is, it’s higher than it ever was before (during a high tide). It hasn’t been like this until recently.”
A block away on Wentworth Street, Clark Salisbury was searching for his wife. The couple was visiting from Portland, Oregon, and one of Amy Salisbury's cousins told them about the forecast flooding — and encouraged them to take a look.
"It's a tourist attraction to us," Clark Salisbury joked.
But the two became separated on either side of flooding at Wentworth and Barre Street, and they had to puzzle out the best way to reunite.
After about five minutes of consulting on the phone, Amy Salisbury appeared on Gadsden Street.
"I didn't realize it would come up so fast," she said. "It's shocking."