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Editorial: Charleston's flooding challenge is seeing the bigger picture

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A wall that's not a wall (copy)

While the city of Charleston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resume work on a protective barrier for the historic peninsula, the city also must rise to the challenge of answering questions about how the project will impact the rest of the city. One Architecture & Urbanism (ONE)/Provided

The newsiest nugget in Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s annual State of the City address came when he announced that the Army Corps of Engineers would expand its work with the city beyond the perimeter barrier already under study. The Corps now also may help the city study its drainage infrastructure, which is welcome news for everyone who recognizes that rising seas and stronger storms pose only part of the city’s flooding risk.

“With this initiative in place, Charleston would not only receive the benefit of their (Corps officials’) world-class engineering expertise for drainage, we would once again have the opportunity to unlock federal matching funds for our long-term flooding and drainage needs,” the mayor said.

That funding part of the equation is critical. As we have noted, the impacts of climate change are devastatingly apparent. The city’s ability to obtain the money needed to address these effects will be the key to its long-term survival.

When the Army Corps presented its perimeter plan last spring, the projected price tag was $1.75 billion. Because of subsequent changes, the cost could be about 25% lower when it’s unveiled in a few months. Eliminating a planned breakwater off the peninsula’s High and Low Batteries alone will save $300 million; moving the perimeter wall closer to shore also is expected to reduce costs significantly. That’s welcome news as the city works to pull together its share of the funding.

But the city’s challenge extends beyond the Corps’ current and future work, as huge and daunting as those projects may be. The city must think bigger still. Our future depends on it.

The perimeter plan is expected to help secure the city’s historic core for generations, but the city also needs a clear plan to address future drainage and flooding risks across West Ashley, James and Johns islands and even the Cainhoy peninsula. It also must collaborate with its metro region neighbors, because water doesn’t stop at a line on a map. Details about the size of the new Army Corps-city drainage initiative are being worked on, but it’s unlikely to cover the entire city.

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When the Army Corps unveiled its perimeter plan, many who lived and worked outside downtown raised a legitimate, understandable concern: Would building a perimeter wall around the peninsula divert storm surges toward other, less protected parts of the city, worsening flooding there? The Army Corps agreed the question has merit and is expected to release its analysis by early April.

Regardless of those results, the peninsula wall will affect the rest of the city in other important ways. It’s simple economics. A few years ago — as frequent, serious flooding thrust drainage and sea level rise to the top of the agenda — city officials came up with a rough estimate that Charleston would need $2 billion worth of investment to address its drainage and flooding infrastructure needs. That back-of-the-envelope projection did not include the $1.75 billion wall project, so the city faces more than $3 billion worth of needs. That works out to more than $20,000 for every resident of the city.

Charleston City Council ultimately will be asked to agree to raising its 35% share of the perimeter wall, but it’s hard to see how council members will be able to agree to such an outsize commitment — easily the largest in Charleston’s history — without a complete understanding of how that will affect the city’s ability to address drainage and flooding work elsewhere.

These conversations will be difficult. It’s not feasible to build a barrier around every part of the city. The Corps is only willing to contribute 65% of the cost of protecting the peninsula, or about $1 billion, because of downtown’s high property values — and the potential damage to its properties from future storms. Still, federal help for the peninsula means local dollars will be more available for other areas.

Given the huge costs, it’s vital that Charleston get federal assistance — and state, county and other help, for that matter. It will have limited say over where those outside dollars are spent, but it can and must ensure it has a plan for addressing the future flooding needs across the entire city.

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