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Newsmaker of the Year

2018 was the year our changing climate became impossible to ignore in South Carolina

  • 8 min to read

This year, coastal erosion accelerated. Record tidal floods swamped miles of shoreline. Flooding was catastrophic from Hurricane Florence, and the storm almost became the most powerful hurricane ever to make landfall in South Carolina.

Climate records are being broken with increasing frequency as air and seas warm. It's become the new norm, researchers say. The ultimate costs will be exorbitant.

And Charleston is quickly becoming Ground Zero for the threats. In response, the city is taking the lead among coastal communities in the state and region to try to prepare — not so surprising for a place facing 180 days per year of tidal flooding by 2045, according to federal estimates.

Only 24 tides have topped 8 feet in Charleston Harbor during the past century without tropical storm influence. Three of them arrived in the past month.

The extreme weather is becoming more prevalent amid the noise of an increasingly loud political debate over global climate warming and what governments should do to address it. 

While weather and climate are separate, the increase in major flooding is yet more real world evidence that the concerns are valid and damage already apparent. A growing number of coastal residents wonder what’s still to come.

Sea rise is ever so slowly eroding the livability of a place that has flooded throughout its history. The Lowcountry's coastal location at the transition point between the subtropics and the temperate zone has made it more vulnerable than other places to the ecosystem damage of a warming climate.

Hurricanes are getting more powerful and consequently more destructive, researchers largely concur.

Meanwhile, more people are moving to the water’s edge, the development exacerbating the damage and putting more of the population in harm’s way. Plus, a multi-billion dollar tourism economy is at stake.

'A significant wealth loss'

Hurricanes and major flooding typically wreak havoc on the economy in five ways: property damage, infrastructure damage, poorer crop yields, lost wages and lower business revenue.

Destruction of property often accounts for a disproportionately large chunk of the damage, said University of South Carolina research economist Joseph Von Nessen.

For loss of revenue, the impacts to tourism are particularly acute, especially since major storms often occur when the state's industry is in full swing. The Charleston area alone lost about $111.3 million in visitor spending during Hurricane Florence, according to figures from the College of Charleston.

The overall economic impact of Hurricane Florence was estimated at $16 billion to $20 billion, with several billion of those damages felt in South Carolina. The impact could have been greater, too, Von Nessen said. In addition to those direct losses, there are other downstream economic effects. For example, when businesses close for extreme weather, their suppliers also lose business.

Natural disasters also can create a stimulus effect, Von Nessen said, primarily in the construction and retail sectors, as communities and businesses rebuild. Insurance claims are made against damaged property, crops and infrastructure, and FEMA money comes in, creating a temporary bubble in the state’s economy.

“Even though the stimulus happens, it’s still a net loss for the state,” he said. “There’s a significant wealth loss for South Carolinians.”

Any damaged property that wasn’t insured means money out of its owner’s pocket. And after the initial stimulus, there’s usually a small dip in activity since some rebuilding projects were already planned but moved up because of storm damage.

Since the state has faced major weather events for the past several years, those in the agricultural sector in particular have seen their businesses become more volatile and uncertain, Von Nessen said.

'It really is causing us to pause'

Tourism, South Carolina's top industry, has a huge economic impact, so weather disruptions can quickly add up. A recent study commissioned by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism found that domestic travelers spent $13.7 billion in the state last year.

The threat of autumn storms has "become part of people's decision-making process, which is what we want to try to overcome," said Duane Parrish, the department's director.

The tourism industry is overwhelmingly dominated by coastal locations that can be vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms, with Horry, Charleston and Beaufort counties accounting for more than half of the economic activity. Myrtle Beach leads the pack with an estimated 18 million visitors annually.

While that region of the state was relatively unscathed this year during Hurricane Florence, the storm's aftermath unleashed a slow-moving crisis as local rivers and swamps flooded. In addition to inundating low-lying homes and other buildings, the flood cut off several important roads, creating a gridlocked crisis for a destination that depends heavily on visitors arriving by car.

For the first time ever, congestion was so bad that tourism officials briefly told visitors to delay their trip or come by airplane instead, Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Riordan said. And serious tropical storms during the past four years are imperiling what has been a growing segment of the year on the Grand Strand.

"It really is causing us to pause a bit and look not only at our emergency planning but our marketing planning," she said. "I think our plan for how we market the fall might need to be a little bit different given the number of weather events we’ve had in September."

In Charleston, by contrast, the fall is typically the second strongest season, so marketers worry less about attracting visitors because it's a naturally popular time of year, said Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But tourism officials in the Charleston region still have to deal with the consequences of severe weather. Images of tidal flooding can scare visitors who aren't familiar with how to get around the area, Hill said, and the CVB has tried to help by becoming a resource for traffic directions.

And with the area's massive growth, businesses in the hospitality industry find they don't just have to deal with flighty tourists but also with employees who may never have had to cope with a serious tropical storm or tidal flooding.

"You just don't think about the number of people in the community that haven't had to walk this path before," Hill said.

There's no study on how future severe weather and climate change might affect the tourism over the long term, Parrish said. His department plans to conduct focus groups in the Midwest and Northeast next year as to how those consumers associate coastal flooding with South Carolina.

Ground zero

After last year's flooding from Tropical Storm Irma last year, which marked the third straight year many of its neighborhoods were underwater, the city of Charleston faced renewed scrutiny for how it prepares for and responds to the imminent threats of more extreme weather.

Mayor John Tecklenburg began 2018 with an announcement that addressing flooding would be the city’s top priority for the year.

Since then, the city has made significant progress on some of its most pressing challenges, but others continue to emerge. The ultimate solutions are expected to take decades and cost billions.

The extensive study of the Church Creek drainage basin wrapped up and revealed that $44 million worth of infrastructure was needed to fix the decades-long flooding problems there. Recently, the city and Charleston County agreed to put some property taxes aside over the next 20 years to pay for them. The development moratorium in the 5,000-acre basin in outer West Ashley was lifted, but only after City Council passed stricter stormwater rules builders would have to follow.

Those measures were aimed at not only fixing the existing problems caused by past developments but also ensuring new developments won’t worsen drainage problems in the area. Time will tell if the city can make this dual strategy work.

At the same time those solutions were mapped out for Church Creek, it was revealed that developers in many other communities were using the same building practices that led to so many of Church Creek’s flooding problems.

Floodplains are being carved up all over the region with little regard to the natural flow of water through the landscape, and very little coordination among municipalities. Subdivision developers on Johns Island, for instance, are still allowed to clear hundreds of acres of forests, fill in wetlands and layer on tons of fill dirt to elevate their sites — despite evidence that all this sends more frequent and deeper floods to nearby communities.

A coalition of nonprofits and neighborhoods formed a group called Fix Flooding First to pressure governments to change their ways.

Another group of residents asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to investigate Charleston for failing to protect its residents from flooding. So, FEMA did, and found that the city had seriously violated the minimum standards of the National Flood Insurance Program. The city since has worked on strategies to improve its floodplain protections and its monitoring of compliance with the program.

In the midst of all this, the mayor and top city officials spent a week in the Netherlands seeking guidance on how to better control flooding. The city’s top drainage engineer — who consistently defended the city’s missteps — was edged out after nearly 30 years on the job. City Council then approved the mayor’s request to create a new department that will focused solely on flooding.

In another positive development, the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to begin a $3 million study of the flood risks on the Charleston peninsula, an effort that eventually could bring federal dollars for major infrastructure projects, such as a seawall. The city and the county have also partnered on drainage studies in West Ashley and on James Island to identify projects they can collaborate on.

Just as the city began to look to 2019, it was revealed in early December that the massive drainage project along the Septima P. Clark Parkway, commonly referred to as the Crosstown, was over budget by $43 million and would take another four years to be completed.

The revelation could impact how the city moves forward on other large drainage projects, particularly Calhoun-West. That one encompasses the three drainage basins that handle flooding along western Calhoun Street south to the Low Battery, an area that includes the oft-flooded medical district.

Some council members, including Keith Waring and Mike Seekings, said they fear that the delays and added costs will end up putting other major drainage projects on the back-burner. 

That's time no one is sure the coast has anymore.

Emily Williams, Chloe Johnson and Abigail Darlington contributed to this report.


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Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.