Charleston needs a flooding czar, a power broker with the unchallenged authority to make politicians and bureaucrats shiver in their Wellies. This person needs a blank check for engineering and financial decisions to make Charleston as flood-proof as possible, as quickly as feasible, say 2018 or 2020. Otherwise, the city will tread water till it drowns. Otherwise, homeowners will be forced to sell to the lowest bidders and the Charleston boom will fizzle into a layer of pluff mud.
Don’t be blindsided by the sunny days that followed Irma. The die has been cast. The third major flood in three years has left the city rattled. Two storms in a row might have been coincidence. But three represent a significant pattern.
This is not alarmist. For too long, for too many decades, the city of Charleston has had its head in the sand. Now homeowners are no longer putting up with all those lame excuses and explanations for the slow and deliberate municipal inaction on flood mitigation. Much as they love Charleston, three years of brackish, sewage-laden water in their living rooms mitigates their community romance.
Can this marriage be saved? Perhaps. Perhaps the widening rift between the city fathers and its fed-up homeowners is not irrevocable. The onus falls on the city. Its elected leaders must stop making excuses for the failures and stop explaining just how all that water got from the ocean onto streets and into houses. We don’t care.
All the public relations in the world does not help the cleanup or pay for new crawl-space ductwork for the third year in a row. We know city officials have been working tirelessly, round the clock. We know they understand the hydrodynamics. But that is irrelevant — public relations pluff mud. Because we also know that if Maria had veered toward us instead of out to sea, it all would have happened again. And it may yet happen again, as we move through the alphabet. We also know that the city is largely defenseless against a big-time storm surge.
Yet the city is moving at a glacial pace. Take for example the news that an expert in Dutch dikes may visit Charleston for consultations sometime in the next few weeks, date uncertain. Next few weeks? Why not last spring? Why not last year? Or the year before that? Did the mayor just hear about the wonders of Dutch dikes?
Speaking of the mayor, his point man on flooding, his chief resilience officer, has a half-time position. But his communications chief, Jack O’Toole, is full time. He was quoted in this newspaper by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith as saying that city must find a way to pony up half the $2 billion it will cost to keep the ocean out of Charleston, a project that will take a generation. “This not going to be done overnight, by any means.”
Let’s call a generation 30 years. So at, say, $15,000 per crawl-space duct work per year, that would be about $500,000 over a generation for one single–family house. Too much, too long. Unacceptable.
Indeed, such defeatist talk is meek and self-fulfilling, not that of a bold and courageous leadership. Bold and courageous was when President Kennedy in April 1961 made the audacious pledge that America would land men on the moon before the decade was out. It was not easy but Apollo 11 put men on the moon in July 1969. It took dedication and engineering creativity.
So far, effective flooding mitigation remains a fervent wish for Charleston. Alas, not good enough. To succeed in a timely, meaningful fashion — while many of us are still alive — there must be a will. We need municipal leadership to show why something can be done, not an administration that settles for reasons why it can’t. Not enough money? Find it.Technical hurdles? Surpass them. Prove to Charleston residents that this is the great city the travel magazines proclaim it to be.
The mayor, it seems, is so preoccupied with the troubles of West Ashley and the demands of the city’s all-powerful developers, not to mention a balky City Council, that it is all too much for him to also focus on the looming Atlantic Ocean.
So the mayor should turn full responsibility for flooding mitigation over to a trusted, smart and incorruptible official, perhaps even an unpaid retired professional, with the authority and budget to make hard, creative, unilateral decisions, and meet impossible deadlines. The engineering is not all that complicated. It is the political will that will determines whether Charleston gives its citizens a fair shot at the future. As in the Apollo era, failure is not an option.
Charleston is waiting. The Atlantic is not.
Mark Bloom, a Charleston resident, is a semi-retired journalist.