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Steve Bailey: Build the sea wall and save Charleston's peninsula. But make it beautiful

Army Corps flood wall (copy) (copy) (copy)

This map shows the proposed footprint of a new flood protection wall around Charleston's peninsula (in yellow). The exact path is subject to change. Provided/Army Corps of Engineers

To cut to the chase of the Army Corps of Engineers’ report that envisions Charleston as once again a walled city, turn to the side-by-side maps on page 219. It’s enough to make any good Charlestonian’s blood run cold.

Using simulations of what a 25-year storm event would mean for the peninsula in 2075, the maps show in scary detail what would happen if we build the sea wall and if we don’t.

No sea wall: A massive hurricane swamps the peninsula, leaving behind a narrow high spine running from East Battery to the Neck Area. Everything else is water. Half the historic district, more than 100 historic structures and 43% of archaeology sites are flooded. Two police stations, two fire stations and eight health-care facilities also sit in water.

With the sea wall: The peninsula as we know it is saved.

Even as the coronavirus has, overnight, come to define our lives, the tides keep rising. There’s no vaccine for climate change. Charleston is a special place — we locals don’t need those silly magazine rankings to tell us that — and the peninsula is the crown jewel. We need to do everything we can to save it.

The Army Corps proposal is an opportunity we cannot afford to easily dismiss. Start with this: The Corps is considering recommending Congress spend $1.1 billion in federal money because it estimates the project would create $94.4 million annually in benefits. The city — and ultimately the state and county, too — would have to come up with $600 million, a huge sum. But for every dollar we spend, the federal government would spend two.

Consider: In the past 30 years, the federal government has contributed a paltry $35 million of the $200 million Charleston has spent on flooding. Over the years, we have been strong on studying flooding, weak on raising money to fix it. The Army Corps offers our best chance to do something about it.

The public comment period — now extended to a total of 90 days (through June 19 and then another month in early 2021) — is critical to understanding how a sea wall fits into an overall plan to deal with climate change and how it fits into the fabric of our city. Among the questions to be asked: What would the 8-mile seawall and 4,000-foot breakwater off The Battery actually look like? How will we address the stormwater flooding a sea wall won’t fix? How many jobs would the largest infrastructure project in the region’s history create?

While the headline of the much-lauded Dutch Dialogues was about “living with water,” a sea wall for the peninsula is very much part of the plan. Dale Morris, an economist who led the Dutch Dialogues, called a sea wall around the entire peninsula “needed and justified.”

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The sea wall must be multi-functional and beautiful, Morris said. He warned that the kind of concrete barrier construction the Army Corps has proposed “is not so attractive. You shouldn’t have buyer’s regret if all you have is I-Walls and T-Walls.”

“There is time to get this right,” Morris said.

A sea wall is hardly a new idea. In 1911, just as the Low Battery was being completed, the state conveyed to the city the rights to extend the sea wall along the Ashley River from Tradd Street to Hampton Park. Now, more than a century later, the Army Corps is proposing to pay 65% to build that forgotten sea wall, raise the High Battery and much more work. None of that should be controversial.

If not this, then what?

Even with the Army Corps’ endorsement, Charleston remains a long shot for funding. The Corps has a backlog of 98 authorized projects and an annual construction budget of $2 billion. The city of Norfolk, Va., last year signed a deal with the Corps to seek funding for its own $1.8 billion sea wall project. As the nation decides what to save, New York, Boston and Miami will loom as essential cities.

Saving Charleston will require the city, the state and our congressional delegation to speak as one that Charleston — and its peninsula in particular — is absolutely essential for the region. What’s also essential is that we avoid the usual destructive tribal wars.

Charleston is a city of stories. Once upon a time, a group of patriots built Fort Sullivan of palmetto logs to defend the city against the British Navy. One day, Charlestonians may well tell a new story of how another generation of patriots saved the city 250 years later. Standing atop our beautiful sea wall, they will admire the harbor on one side and the steeples of St. Matthew's and Mother Emanuel on the other and know it was worth it.

Steve Bailey can be reached at Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.

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