Scientists, officials look at creating more resilient Charleston

Drivers on Morrison Drive flow through flooding caused not by rain but by a very high tide. Such “nuisance flooding” is expected to become more common as the sea level rises.

Most know that Charleston is at risk for hurricanes, earthquakes and a rising sea level, but what about increased nuisance flooding, strong population growth and icicles — or ice bombs — falling from the Ravenel Bridge?

Exactly what does resiliency mean when it comes to Charleston? And how might that change over the next few decades?

These are the central questions that will be discussed Wednesday, when the National Research Council holds a special daylong workshop at the Francis Marion Hotel, an event coinciding with Earth Day that will bring together scientists and local public officials, emergency planners and business interests.

The council chose Charleston as one of three pilot cities, partly because of its many potential risks but also because of its growth, its optimism, the increasing national interest, and its own desire to become more resilient, said Lauren Alexander Augustine, director of the Resilient America Roundtable. Seattle and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are the other two pilot cities.

“When we think about resilience, we don’t just think about it in terms of when the sky falls, we think about it in terms of what it takes for this place to maintain and elevate this quality of life,” she said.

Even if the risks remain the same, a growing population potentially puts more people in harm’s way and changes the calculus of disaster response, she said.

Rick DeVoe, director of the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, said while many in Charleston learned from Hurricane Hugo’s punch in 1989, many current residents did not.

“We learned about resilience a long time ago, at least in that respect,” he said. “But one of the challenges in our region is that we’re a growing region, and we have so many people here who live here and recreate here who weren’t here then.”

Myles Maland of the Coastal Conservation League will attend Wednesday’s workshop and will pay particular attention to possible solutions for nuisance flooding — localized flooding caused largely by high tides.

Such flooding used to occur less than five days a year before 1963, but nuisance flooding currently is seen about 23 days a year. A NOAA study presented last year said in 30 to 40 years, even modest projections of global sea-level rise will increase tidal flooding to a point requiring an active, and potentially costly response.

“We’re hopeful that this will be an important step in looking out into the future and taking a close look at things like sea level rise and how that will affect not only the peninsula but also the Charleston region,” Maland said.

The council’s work will continue for about two years and ultimately will encourage Charleston leaders to fashion their own resiliency strategy, including one that looks at what kind of public investments might pay off most in 20 years or 50 years down the road.

“That’s a tricky question,” Augustine said. “Where do you put scarce resources?”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Myles Maland’s name.