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Rising Waters

How flooding intensifies the Charleston region's racial and wealth inequities

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People walk out of President Market during flooding on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. The market is just across from the Gadsden Green public housing complex. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

When the flooding gets bad enough, Jessica Flowers is forced to walk. She trudges through water-filled streets in pants and shoes to catch a bus that will take her close to the grocery store where she works.

Sometimes her clothes get so soaked she has to buy new ones and throws the others away. 

Flowers lives on the western edge of the Charleston peninsula in a neighborhood dominated by the sprawling Gadsden Green public housing complex. President Street, where she normally waits for the bus, can look like a river during heavy rains. 

She told The Post and Courier in June that she can’t begin to calculate how much she’s spent on losses related to water damage. There was the money at the laundromat to try to salvage clothes she ended up throwing away. There was the time she had to stay in a hotel room because floodwaters prevented her from getting back to her home.

Then there was a storm earlier this year when flash flooding shut down bus routes and a ride-sharing service wouldn’t pick her up due to the risk of getting stuck. 

“I was stranded,” Flowers said. “I couldn’t get to work.”

As the pace of sea level rise accelerates, flooding is more than just a nuisance. It's an intensifier of inequality. While it affects both rich and poor, those with less wealth are more vulnerable to its impacts.

Flooding can cause transportation hardships that lead to lost workdays and health risks for those who have to slog through water teeming with E. coli and toxic chemicals. That may mean less money in a paycheck and more going out for medical expenses, further deepening financial insecurity. 

Tuesday afternoon was another day of disruption. An unusually high tide just after 1 p.m. put parts of the peninsula under water: the streets around the medical district, The Battery — and especially Gadsden Green, where saltwater covered the aptly named intersection of Line and Flood streets.

In the Charleston region, one of the most flood-prone areas on the East Coast, Black people face great risks from climate change due to racial discrimination that limited generational wealth and displacement caused by gentrification.

The Gadsden Green apartments were built as segregated housing for Black residents on low-lying land previously occupied by African American homeowners. The nearly half-square-mile neighborhood it sits in now is just one pocket of poverty in Charleston primarily occupied by Black people. 

There is also the city's East Side, where flooding and pooling water around public housing are common occurrences, even when it's not raining.

Residents in Rosemont, a community in the industrialized upper peninsula, blame the building of a new highway interchange nearby for their recent issues with water. One, who has lived there for 20 years, said she now must bring sandbags to help fortify her elderly neighbor's house ahead of approaching storms.  

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The new Interstate 26 interchange and a marsh surround the Rosemont neighborhood in Charleston on Jan. 23, 2020. Decades after I-26 sliced through the community, Rosemont faces another road project that residents say is threatening their quality of life. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

“Those areas were put on the back burner years ago," said Arthur Lawrence, a former president of the neighborhood association for the Westside, which covers much of the peninsula's flood-prone western edge. “It’s a shame that every time you have a storm or have a hard rain, those people are bearing the brunt of it.”

All three communities are in areas with poverty rates double that of Charleston as a whole, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At least one in three residents in those areas are below the federal poverty level, which is currently an income of $26,200 for a family of four.

Half of the 2,800 people in the area that includes the Gadsden Green homes live in poverty, the census estimates. Nearly all of the residents in the public housing complex are Black, according to the head of the city's housing authority.

Flooding around the complex happens rain or shine. Contractor John Jamison found that out Monday as he ran from the home he was working on to rescue his truck before it was swamped by rising creek waters, driven by 8-foot-plus high tide on a sunny day. 

“Look at how fast it’s coming in,” he said, gesturing to the public housing apartments behind him. "I wonder who thought to build this here."

To understand that story and the vulnerability these residents face today, one must revisit the past, beginning with the tornadoes that led to the creation of the Gadsden Green housing project 82 years ago.

Born out of destruction

On the morning of Sept. 29, 1938, whirling winds moved onto the peninsula, flattening homes on what is now the area around the Gadsden Green apartments. 

Another tornado damaged buildings downtown. In all, five tornadoes hit the region that day, killing 32 people.

After the storm, Black residents along the low-lying western edge of the peninsula picked through the ruins for whatever clothing and possessions they could salvage as workers in tractors and trucks broke up and hauled away pieces of the damaged and demolished houses.

“The homes of all these people proved to represent their life savings, and in many instances the home had been left them by relatives or parents,” a survey of more than 200 Black families after the tornadoes found. Across Charleston, Black residents historically lived in low-lying and flood-prone areas because those spots were considered less desirable and cheaper. 

The destruction only worsened a housing shortage for Black people in Charleston. To address it, Mayor Burnet Maybank sought federal money to build segregated public housing.

That meant clearing the homes of Black residents who still lived in the neighborhood to make way for the new apartments.  

In March 1940, John Harris wrote a letter to Maybank's successor. Harris, and the 37 other residents who signed the document, asked the new mayor to reconsider the plan. 

The area had the largest group of Black property owners of any place in the city, Harris wrote, and included mechanics, artisans and schoolteachers. The majority of people either owned or were in the process of buying their homes, the letter said. 

"There is not another single area in Charleston available to Colored people where so large a group can purchase or build homes, and the few places that are available to our group, are prohibitive in the purchase price,” Harris wrote. 

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Residents of East Side are among Charleston residents who commonly deal with flooding. America Street was covered by water after several inches of rain fell, flooding parts of the peninsula on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Mayor Henry Lockwood told Harris he would discuss the matter with the head of the city’s housing authority but he wasn’t optimistic. 

Construction on the first batch of public housing apartments there began the following year. 

The collection of brick homes was named Gadsden Green, likely after Thomas Norman Gadsden, a White developer from the 1800s who subdivided the land. Residents who lived around the apartments called the area Back-da-Green. 

'Waterfront property'

Barbara Gathers grew up with her grandparents in a two-story home across the street from the apartments. The neighborhood had a mix of homeowners, renters and businesses. A few White families lived there. 

Things took a turn for the worse in 1954 when the city opened a landfill nearby on marshland next to the Ashley River. Gathers, who was 10, watched trucks deposit old appliances and tires on the heap.

“They used the Black community as a city dump,” she said. 

Maurice Washington was around 7 when he and his family moved to a Gadsden Green apartment in the late 1960s. 

Washington compared the stench from the landfill to cologne. The people around it all day got used to it, but it could be overbearing for someone smelling it for the first time.

Washington said he’d go to the second level of the apartment he shared with his parents and nine other siblings to overlook the trash piles. There, he could see the sun set over the sparkling Ashley River. He learned to crab on the bank of the river and nearby Gadsden Creek, which flowed in front of their apartment. Residents used to drive boats in areas now covered in pavement. The creek was used for baptisms. 

“We had waterfront property,” Washington said.

The apartment was along what is now Hagood Avenue, a notorious flood spot in present day.  

This week, salty water has covered the road during high tides, splashing the undersides of trucks that sped through it and forcing walkers to change course. 

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The intersection of Line Street and Hagood Avenue during a high tide just before noon on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Charleston. Residents in the nearby Gadsden Green public housing complex are impacted by the area's regular flooding. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Back when Washington was growing up, he remembered high tides bringing water through the shower drains into his, and other, apartments. He would see people sweeping water out of their front and back doors. 

Even so, he recalled, there were natural filtrations in place — wetlands, grass and other vegetation — that helped soak up water. 

“It wasn’t the kind of flooding that you see now," Washington said. 

Equal attention

Similar concerns echo up the peninsula in North Charleston's Union Heights neighborhood, where a major storm can submerge streets such as Irving Avenue. The road — less than one-third-of-a-mile long — has a dead end. A former highway ramp, that cut through the community, runs next to it. 

Residents on Irving live in homes passed down through generations. One senior citizen who lives there has to use her back door to get inside her house when the rain hits. Her neighbor, another senior, doesn't have that option. He has to walk through ankle-deep water, or sometimes higher, to reach his front door.

The Union Heights neighborhood sits on former plantation land that became the site of an African American community after the Civil War. The neighborhood later bustled with barbershops, a fish market, movie theater and other businesses as the area thrived from the 1930s to the 1960s. It has since declined, with its narrow streets now populated with abandoned homes.

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Black people make up the vast majority of residents who live on a stretch of land sandwiched between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, where Union Heights is located. In some sections, one in three residents live in poverty, which is double the statewide rate, according to census estimates. 

Some residents see racial discrimination as the reason why their low-lying area has waited for flooding relief — something North Charleston officials deny. A city spokesman said earlier this year that 18 ongoing stormwater projects were aimed at upgrading pipes to address excess water in areas including Union Heights and Chicora-Cherokee, another predominately Black community.

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The streets and neighborhoods on America Street, on Charleston's East Side, were covered by water after several inches of rain fell on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Flooding and pooling water around public housing on the East Side are common occurrences, even when it's not raining. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

To Omar Muhammad, it is class, not race, that is the issue. Muhammad is executive director of the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities. The group advocates for environmental justice and community development for Union Heights, Chicora-Cherokee and other neighborhoods in the area.   

"Affluent people have a great influence on the political system,” he said. "When you can’t get the attention of your political system, your needs go unanswered and not addressed.” 

Down the peninsula, residents of Gadsden Green learned that lesson long ago. Many rejoiced after the city finally shut down the landfill near their homes due to federal concerns that it was harming the marshland and the Ashley River. But the city just built on top of the dump. In 1974, the Charleston Police Department opened their new headquarters there. More paving and building followed, giving water fewer places to go as flooding worsened. 

Washington, who is the chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party, said he’s watched the development around the Gadsden Green apartments and noticed how the land gradually elevates as you head away from it. That means when it rains the water runoff flows down toward the public housing complex. He questioned whether that would have been allowed in a wealthier neighborhood. 

Others have also pointed to flood mitigation projects in the city's more affluent, and tourist-centered, areas and wondered if residents in Gadsden Green are being left behind. There's the raising of the Low Battery seawall, drainage work on Market Street and the proposed 8-mile perimeter seawall around the city’s core peninsula. 

The ongoing drainage project along the Septima P. Clark Parkway is expected to reduce flooding for people living in and around the eastern half of the Gadsden Green homes. The job is adding tunnels below the parkway, also known as the Crosstown, and a new pump station on the Ashley River. It is set to be completed in three years. 

Matthew Fountain, Charleston's director of stormwater management, agreed that there was not equal investment in drainage and flood-reduction projects across the city in the past. His department, which was created as a separate entity in 2018, is working to change that, he said.

“We want to make sure we’re not leaving behind vulnerable populations," Fountain, who joined the city last year, said. 

His department is using a new ranking system for stormwater projects that will factor in social and equity impacts, he said, which will give City Council members more information before deciding what work gets funded and in what order. 

'Long time coming'

Teddy Foster hopes changes will happen soon.

For generations, his family has run Teddy Foster Grocery, which sits near Flood Street — a fitting name that likely comes from a misspelling of the Fludd family that was involved in laying out the neighborhood, not the area's water problems.  

Foster's father ran the store after taking it over from his father. 

Gathers said the grocery was a community staple, where people talked about what was happening in the world. It was only a few doors down from her home. She would stock up on Popsicles and candy there. Washington’s first job was at the store, which he started working at in sixth grade.

On a day in June, potatoes and onions filled crates near Teddy Foster's cash register. Cans of sweet corn and peas were stacked on shelves.  

Foster said that flooding on Allway Street, which runs right by the store, has worsened in the past 10 years. 

During high tides and heavy rains, people have to walk through water to access his store and two others in the neighborhood that carry food and household items. That's if the stores are able to stay open due to the high water. 

He also watches children and teenagers wade through dirty floodwater to get to nearby schools.

The Post and Courier in May sampled floodwater in the area and found levels of E. coli at least seven times what health officials consider safe.

“Has the city ever listened to the people over here?” Foster said.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he is listening, and that the new stormwater prioritization system and ongoing drainage projects will help with the flooding. 

“Some of this is a long time coming, but I feel like we’ve refocused our priorities and progress is on the way," he said.  

The Gadsden Green apartments are especially vulnerable to water damage, as they were built before the federal government set height requirements for properties in flood prone areas. 

Stevenson Johnson said in June that he had lived in a Gadsden Green apartment for the past seven years.

During the historic 2015 flooding that damaged homes across the city and state, he said water got inside his apartment. 

Johnson, a landscape worker, said it cost him around $1,200 to have water vacuumed up in his home and for mold to be removed. 

The housing authority pays for maintenance work when water damages the inside of its homes, but it does not pay for harm to personal property. The authority encourages residents to get renters' insurance, something few can afford. 

Johnson said he didn't have insurance and paid for the work himself.   

It doesn't take a monumental storm like 2015 to shut down life for residents in the neighborhood, he said. Sometimes a high tide can do the trick. 

“If we get flooded, we’re stuck,” Johnson said from his front porch. “We can’t go anywhere.”

A couple of used sandbags sat nearby. 

Wary from the past

The fate of another formerly segregated public housing project worries people connected to Gadsden Green. 

City officials closed the Ansonborough Homes, located on the peninsula's eastern edge, after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 damaged many of its 162 units. They also pointed to testing that found a cancer-causing contaminant in the soil the homes sat on. Black residents who lived there protested the decision. 

The land was later sold and the complex demolished. 

But building occurred there again. Not in the form of more public housing, but as high-end condominiums and office buildings.

“The problem is when they built it back, they didn’t build it back for the people who lived there before," Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie said. “That’s the big fear of many of the African Americans in the city of Charleston, 'What’s going to happen in our existing public housing community?' ”

The city eventually added more affordable housing for senior citizens in the area. 

Bernard Powers, a historian and the interim CEO of the International African American Museum in Charleston, said climate change and flooding could continue to exacerbate disparities caused by racial discrimination, leading more Black residents to be displaced from the peninsula. 

"The differential in income and savings based on race, makes Black residents less able to apply the fixes to their homes that might allow them to stay where they are," he said. 

In Rosemont, the upper peninsula community, residents there are frightened about their future as many receive repeated phone calls and letters to buy their homes from people looking for affordable places to live.

That fear extends down to Gadsden Green. Gathers, the former neighborhood resident, said she is concerned the public housing complex will be cleared to make way for a "resort area for the rich and well-to-do."  

A nonprofit formed by the city of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina's foundation has already helped spur new high-end projects nearby, including a Publix grocery store, apartments and office space

A one-bedroom apartment was recently listed for $1,580 a month at Caroline, one of the new buildings, which is featured as a "private oasis with all-encompassing water views." The maximum a Gadsden Green public housing resident pays to rent a one bedroom apartment is currently $765, Donald Cameron, the city's housing authority director, said. Residents can also choose to pay a rental amount based on their income.

Tecklenburg said the city and housing authority have no intention of having the site of the Gadsden Green apartments be available for anything other than affordable housing.   

Michael Maher is the CEO of the WestEdge Foundation, the nonprofit behind the recent additions to the area. He said that the foundation's proposal to build on Gadsden Creek, and the former landfill, will reduce flooding for the public housing residents who live across the street.

“We think this is a situation that has to be resolved, that’s why we’re taking on a very significant investment,” Maher said.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Army Corps of Engineers are reviewing the proposal. 

Gathers, for her part, doesn't think the new buildings will last long. 

"I don’t wish harm on anybody," she said. "I just feel Gadsden Creek, like its inhabitants, will rise again.”

Tony Bartelme and Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.

Reach Stephen Hobbs at 843-937-5428. Follow him on Twitter @bystephenhobbs.

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