Hurricane Dorian’s visit was neither a surprise nor a wake-up call for Charleston. Beginning with Hurricane Joaquin, which spawned the 2015 “rain bomb,” then Matthew in 2016, followed by Irma in 2017, Florence in 2018 and now Dorian, we have experienced five such storms in five years. We are now skilled in the business of weather — tracking the size and direction of these annual events, estimating the risk and likely damage from rain, wind and storm surges, and doing what we can to get out of the way.
Like the National Hurricane Center’s forecasting model, we have become expert at hurricane prognostication. Storm preparation, response and recovery are now a way of life, and even a significant sector of our economy. Hurricanes have become old hat.
Neither is increased flooding from rising tides the elephant in the living room it was four years ago, when The Post and Courier’s Tony Bartleme and Doug Pardue described our elected officials’ response to threats from a changing climate as “thundering silence,” and noted that the city’s Century V plan for the future did not even mention “sea rise.” Articles on flooding now run in the newspaper almost daily; citizens weigh in regularly with letters to the editor and op-eds, and the Dutch Dialogues have become more popular than Charleston RiverDogs games.
But on the most important challenge facing the city — the only truly relevant question — thundering silence still prevails. Where will the money come from to prepare our community for higher seas and more severe storms? In this arena, denial, magical thinking and political sleights of hand abound.
The facts and figures on flood and hurricane protection are readily available to anyone who spends a few hours perusing newspaper articles and city budgets. City officials have estimated the cost to be about $2 billion — constructing new and higher seawalls, building floodwater retention areas and installing tunnels and pumps, like the ongoing but still only partially funded Crosstown Expressway project. There are around 20 priority projects in West Ashley and on the peninsula and James Island, with individual costs ranging from $30 million to $400 million.
Two billion dollars will not cover everything necessary to keep the city completely high and dry, but it is a reasonable target for planning purposes. Two billion dollars will take us a long way toward a safe and prosperous future.
Lest anyone think $2 billion is beyond the realm of fiscal possibility, consider the projected price tags of some of South Carolina’s recent infrastructure projects: $900 million (the 2002 cost adjusted for inflation) for the Ravenel Bridge, $725 million for eight miles of highway connecting West Ashley and Johns and James islands; $2 billion to $4 billion for a new interstate for tourists traveling to Myrtle Beach; $450 million to deepen Charleston Harbor; and $1.5 billion to improve “malfunction junction,” the I-26 and I-20 intersection in Columbia that is gridlocked during rush hour. In comparison, a mere $2 billion over 10 years or so, to save an internationally acclaimed, 300-year-old city that also happens to be the center of economic activity on the South Carolina coast sounds like a bargain.
On the other side of the lopsided ledger is the minuscule funding our leaders have so far identified to prevent Charleston from becoming the next Atlantis — less than $300 million, or about 13 percent of what is needed. Most significantly, there are no meaningful new sources included in the total. The majority of the money being deployed today was secured years ago. Further, the new sources being discussed are either inconsequential — like the city’s accommodations and hospitality tax, which would represent about 0.5 percent of the total need – or fictional, like the often publicized, but never specified, “federal funding.” (I have discussed this with our congressional office and can report that there is nothing on the funding docket anytime soon.)
The challenge today is no more difficult than it was to replace the Cooper River bridges or to keep the harbor deep enough for Charleston to remain competitive in shipping. There is more than enough money to meet flood mitigation needs. State highway funds from the increased gas tax, the state transportation infrastructure bank, and the county half-cent sales tax represent three good options. The only thing required to secure this money for Charleston is political leadership and hard work.
Unfortunately, for the past few years we’ve had nothing but bread and circuses. The coming months will reveal whether our local leaders can make the transition from dialoguing to delivering, or whether they, and we, will be satisfied to just “eat cake,” as our city inexorably sinks into the harbor.
Dana Beach is a conservationist and Charleston resident.