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Editorial: Keep planning for a wall around Charleston as city keeps searching for money

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Charleston flooding

This computer simulation, done by Google Analytics and Climate Central, shows how badly Charleston would flood if a storm like Hurricane Hugo struck here again. Above, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Broad Street stands surrounded by water. Provided

Charleston’s peninsula needs a wall. Exactly what it should look like, where it should be placed, how much it costs, how that bill will be paid and how the city will meet its other flooding challenges remain very open questions. But the city, the Army Corps of Engineers and others already are far enough into their study for us to realize that this historic city won’t survive without additional protection from storms.

The need was evident Thursday, as City Council held a 2½-hour-long workshop and heard from its Dutch Dialogue consultants, including David Waggoner, of Waggoner and Ball, who have been examining the project. They made it clear that while perimeter protection such as the wall is needed, it also must be incorporated into a broader flooding and drainage strategy. And they’re right.

“It’s got to be a whole-city, whole-water approach. It can’t be thought of just as perimeter protection. It’s really perimeter management, edge management. It’s really peninsula operation: How are you going to stay here on that beautiful spit of land?” Mr. Waggoner said. “How are you going to stay here as the sea is coming in? You’re not going to keep all the water out.”

The evolving plan no longer includes a granite breakwater off The Battery, and its price projection has dropped from about $1.75 billion to $1.4 billion. Charleston’s 35% share is now pegged at about $500 million — still a substantial amount — and City Council members were right to raise questions in the workshop about the financial impact and how the city might raise its share. Councilman Keith Waring suggested it might even require a local sales tax, which the Legislature first would have to authorize. It should.

The good news is the city can complete the perimeter study before it commits to spending such a sizable sum. Financial questions are critical — the city needs to identify funding sources and obtain the money — but they should not impede the planning process.

High Tide Flooding (copy) (copy) (copy)

Rodney Clement gingerly steps from the sidewalk to the street through floodwaters around his home on Aiken Street in 2015. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

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Should the city suffer an unfortunate direct hit from a hurricane — a disaster comparable to what New Orleans faced with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — the federal government might be willing to pay a larger share. “Post-disaster, money is just thrown at a city or place that is dealing with impacts from the storm,” noted Dale Morris of the Water Institute of the Gulf and part of the city’s Dutch Dialogue consulting team. That’s certainly not an ideal way to get more funding, but as a practical matter, it points to the need to keep working toward completing the perimeter study.

We’re pleased to see the Corps incorporating an environmental impact study into its study, even though that will stretch the process from three years to four. The feedback from Charleston so far has called for a more in-depth review of the project’s effect on the marsh, all the city’s neighborhoods and its historic ambiance. The Corps and the city plan to hold public meetings next month and again this fall.

City Council should vote this week to form a citizens advisory group for the perimeter project. Among its tasks should be to study what other U.S. cities have done or are doing to finance such a large-scale project.

It’s important to realize the city’s $500 million share is nowhere near its total need: Not only doesn’t that sum include the future operating costs of a perimeter protection system, but the city also has other flooding and drainage work to do in West Ashley, on James and Johns islands and in Berkeley County.

And as we’ve said before, it’s unrealistic for city leaders to commit to protecting the peninsula without a clear understanding of how the rest of the city also can get what it needs. “We have to have an integrated plan for the whole city of Charleston, for all our citizens,” Mayor John Tecklenburg told council members, “and I think that’s what we’re going to do.”

It’s what must be done.

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