Flooding is going to be a problem for parts of the Charleston peninsula for the foreseeable future. Even with some $2 billion in mitigation projects underway, planned or identified, there is simply no way that city officials can hold back a hurricane or prevent the occasional downpour.
In fact, nearly all of those billions of dollars in needed improvements are just designed to get water draining as quickly as possible — not to keep it from flooding onto the streets in the first place.
And with sea levels expected to rise and storms expected to get stronger and more frequent, it makes sense for homeowners to prepare for the worst. In many cases, that means raising houses and other structures to keep floodwaters out.
Unfortunately, that’s not a simple task in most cases, and it’s even more complicated in Charleston’s historic areas, where major changes to homes require multiple layers of careful review.
Those systems of review, and a generally cautious approach to change, have served the city well over many decades, preserving priceless works of architecture. But the extreme threat posed by increased flooding requires drastic measures.
In a Post and Courier report on Saturday, members of the city’s historic preservation community advocated for a case-by-case review and the creation of a set of standards and guidelines.
That’s a sensible approach that could help homeowners understand what properties can be raised, how to do it, what methods are permissible and other questions likely to come up as more and more people ask to lift their properties up to safer levels.
It would also make sense to work on those guidelines along with a broader update to the 2015 Sea Level Rise Strategy document that lays out a citywide approach to combating flooding. That plan calls for the city to look at incentives to help homeowners shore up their properties.
But given that three catastrophic floods have impacted the city since the sea level rise plan was released, now would be a good time to update it with a new sense of urgency.
Of course when historic homes are at risk, context is critical. Ideally, homes in Charleston’s architecturally significant neighborhoods shouldn’t be radically higher in ground-floor elevation than their neighbors. Nor should they add materials that harm architectural integrity.
But in some instances there won’t be any structures left to preserve if something isn’t done, and quickly.
Higher homes won’t let the city off the hook when it comes to needed flooding and stormwater management improvement efforts. Those fixes will be needed no matter what. After all, even sunny day tidal flooding can shut down roads, snarl traffic and cost millions of dollars in business lost.
Finding funding and moving forward with identified projects that can mitigate flooding should be one of the highest priorities for city officials over the next few years. And vigilance is needed to look out for emerging threats as well.
Any changes to Charleston’s historic fabric should be taken seriously and handled with the utmost care. And preventing homes from being destroyed by repetitive flooding is essential to that goal. It must be a consideration when assessing how best to preserve the historic city in a wetter, stormier future.