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Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is pushing for reforms on the federal level to help flood-prone communities prepare for future risks. File/Staff

Over the course of the 40 years he was in office, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley fought vigorously for federal dollars to help pay for the city's major drainage projects, including the deep-tunnel system now under construction along the Septima P. Clark Parkway. 

While he's no longer a politician, he's still trying to lure money from Washington to help flood-prone communities like Charleston. 

Riley is working with the Pew Charitable Trusts on its Flood Prepared Communities project, which is generally aimed at reforming the federal system of flood prevention in a way that gives communities more resources to shield against the growing threats of climate change. 

The former mayor highlighted some of the project's main initiatives on Wednesday during his keynote speech at the Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference in Columbia. 

First, he touched on the effort to change the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program deal with routinely flooded properties.

Congress should pass legislation requiring homeowners to disclose their histories of flooding to prospective home buyers, Riley said, and FEMA should require local governments to fix frequently flooded areas. 

"We've got to stop the cycle," he said.

Right now, the Privacy Act makes it difficult for people to know the full scope of a property's past flooding issues before buying it. 

Riley is also working with Pew on a bill that's been introduced in the House and Senate that would create a new state revolving loan fund program under FEMA, allowing states to apply for low-interest federal loans to fund mitigation projects such as home elevations and buyouts. 

"Cities can't do it alone," he said. "We are hard-pressed with the resources that we have to deal with this."

Riley said the federal government should also ensure that any new federal facilities built in flood-prone communities should consider that threat and adjust accordingly.

Forbes Tompkins with Pew, reached by phone Friday, added that could mean elevating a new highway to keep it from flooding, or that new federal buildings are elevated and include open spaces to handle runoff. 

"One of our key goals is to see a stronger flood standard for federally funded projects," he said. 

Tompkins said Pew chose Riley to be one of its ambassadors of the project, called a distinguished fellow, because of his experience planning and securing funding for large-scale drainage projects in Charleston. 

"He’s a great messenger as a mayor that confronted these issues over many decades and led the response after Hurricane Hugo and was also really resourceful in finding funding streams," he said.

While Riley led many efforts to fix Charleston's drainage issues, some of the developments planned during his time in office have seen severe flooding, especially over the past three years.

Many homes in the Willow Walk subdivision on James Island, for instance, were built below the elevation required by FEMA in the late 1980s, and the city's Board of Appeals granted the developer a variance and allowed them to be occupied.

Riley did lead an effort to improve the drainage in the area, but many of the homes still flood. Residents there are still waiting for the city or the federal government to come up with a mitigation plan.

After his speech Wednesday, Riley said he didn't know the Willow Walk homes were built below the flood elevation at the time. 

He said, generally speaking, he doesn't have any regrets about the way the city addressed flooding threats during his decades in office. He's proud of the funding streams the city created for drainage and the long-term plans that were set in 1984 to fix the existing problems. 

New stormwater systems were put in place in the Ardmore and Byrnes Downs neighborhoods in West Ashley, as well as on Market, Calhoun and East Bay streets downtown. 

"All that was really hard work," he said. "I was proud of what we'd done and the investments we made, and the fact that it's ongoing."

In addition to working with Pew, Riley is a professor of American government and public policy at The Citadel.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.