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Editorial: Charleston's issues with flooding are getting more real

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A carriage tour makes its way down North Market Street in flooded water on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Charleston experienced three events last week that made it quite clear that our challenge of living with water is getting more real. Two were obvious: a near record tide Monday that deluged many city streets under sunny skies and a noontime rain bomb Friday that flooded streets even more.

The third was far less dramatic but arguably as important: a virtual water lab meeting held Wednesday, part of the city’s ongoing work on a new comprehensive plan. Experts laid out their preliminary analyses that ultimately will guide decisions on where the city should grow, where its existing buildings must adapt, where sea walls and other protections might be needed and which areas should be left alone. It’s a critical examination that could help determine the future of the city and its residents.

The new comp plan alone won’t change city zoning or update its new stormwater manual, but its recommendations eventually could lead to a dramatic rewriting of where and how people may build. It’s important for residents and property owners to realize this now — while they still can add their voice to the planning process.

The city’s consultants, which include many of the same members who helped with its Dutch Dialogues flooding study last year, have examined the elevations of property within the city and pinpointed their relative vulnerability to heavy rains, rising tides and storm surges. They have examined existing floodplains and which areas within those floodplains, if developed, would be expected to cause problems downstream, as the city has seen around West Ashley’s Church Creek.

The consultants have studied areas where marshes might migrate landward as seas rise; the plan will speak to the desirability of that happening in places, as opposed to addressing sea level rise with dikes or seawalls. And they looked at the nature of the city’s four main soil groups, some of which can absorb as much as 4 inches of a 6-inch rain; others far less. They also looked at parts of the city, such as James Island, where drainage and development solutions must be coordinated with other local governments.

“If your head is hurting too, we share that,” Dale Morris of The Water Institute of the Gulf, a city consultant, said at the end of the presentation.

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But this work is urgent and vital, as Monday’s tide showed. It’s necessary first to define the city’s existing conditions and how its landscape will change over the next decade. We hope that will lead to a shared vision, which in turn will lead to more specific recommendations and actions.

There are certainly difficult decisions ahead. While the plan might not recommend that the city retreat from areas already built, it could. Similar planning efforts in parts of coastal Virginia, Louisiana, New Jersey and Texas have looked at that. “How do you retreat wisely and fairly? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question,” Mr. Morris says.

David Waggonner, a New Orleans architect also consulting on the plan, says such retreat might not involve large areas of the city, perhaps only a particular low-lying home or two. The city already successfully received federal dollars to buy and raze 32 flood-prone condos in West Ashley.

The vision for how Charleston will deal with this is taking shape: The city has some relatively high elevations well-suited for growth, at least from a flooding and drainage standpoint. It also has low-lying parcels that essentially should be left in reserve, with no new construction. Property owners might not like to learn that a good chunk of their land might only be good for future marshland. Figuring out how to handle the broad swaths of the city somewhere in this middle ground — flood-prone areas that will need new adaptations and protections — promises to be an equally challenging part.

“For generations, Charleston has been a national leader in preserving our past,” Mayor John Tecklenburg says. “Now, with rising seas and ever more extreme weather, we need to become leaders in preserving our future, as well. And that’s what this plan is really all about.”

Monday’s sunny day flood, a high tide that topped 8 feet and ranked among the city’s 30 highest ever recorded by scientists, shows the problem is already here. The city has seen a 1-foot increase in sea levels during the past century; it’s now expected to experience more than double that increase in the next 80 years. The time to plan is now: The city can’t afford to stick its head in the mud.

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