Our fair city has the potential of water assault from two sources: Sea and air. Whereas the repair at the tip of High Battery (with more to follow) was timely and looks great, it's clear that we're not ready for prime time when it comes to the pop-up afternoon summer storm. Not that those are the only things causing celestial flooding. There's always the hurricane and the long winter frontal system, the likes of which shut down the city during December 2009.
The storm Saturday afternoon was very entertaining, if inconvenient for motorists. Its build-up could be sensed all morning. Massive cumulus clouds hovered overhead and the air was so dense with humidity that everything felt wet even before the rains came. It was the kind of morning where people going to and from the Farmers' Market on foot might duck inside shops more to cool off than actually buy something.
Later on there was that bristling feeling of calmness, electricity, overhead lightning and shards of light angling between the black thunderheads. And then the downdraft winds heralded the onset of intense rain - 3 to 4 inches in less than an hour, complicated by tree damage and felled limbs.
In reality this was not a run-of-the-mill storm but a violent burst of turbulence and rainfall, made all the worse by a lunar enhanced flood tide. According to official reports, intersections on the peninsula became impassable, including those on Huger and King Streets. Motorists trapped in cars had to be rescued. The Septima P. Clark (Crosstown) Parkway was so flooded that traffic coming off the Ravenel Bridge had to be redirected onto I-26 headed toward North Charleston.
According to unofficial reports (Facebook-what else?), one family had made it down from Cashiers, N.C., to the peninsula in a very impressive 4½ hours. They thought they were on a record pace - until reality set in and it took another 1½ hours to get to their doorstep. There was even the report of a car floating down Courtenay Street.
So with this type of downpour, perhaps even the most sophisticated pumps, underground tunnels, culverts and so forth couldn't handle the burden of what happened Saturday - a huge amount of rainfall in a compressed period of time pushed back by a powerful king tide. Flooding is an ongoing problem in Charleston, as has been the case for (literally) hundreds of years, made worse by the filling in and development of the creek beds over the centuries, which tend to sink with time and become especially prone to disruption.
The work that has been going on over the past several years to help control flooding is ongoing. I'm not asking for miracles - just the ability to forestall a complete shutdown in these situations.
Speaking of tides - is it not remarkable how much they've risen over the past 20 years or so on average? I don't know the numbers, but any fool can see that they're remarkably different overall. My wife and I were walking along the Battery late Saturday after the rains had died down and as the tide was cresting. It was like being aboard a ship. The water was right there - so close you could just touch it. By then it was a flat calm and the tranquility of the moment obscured the obvious, that we're just a foot or two away from becoming Lake Charleston.
Accordingly, I implore the heavens to be so courteous to send out next hurricane at the lowest tide possible.
Reach Edward M. Gilbreth at firstname.lastname@example.org.