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Rising Waters

Forget about climate change. The real story is climate speed.

special report

  • Updated
Forget about climate change. The real story is climate speed.

1. Faster, sooner

A two-hour cloudburst drenched Charleston on Wednesday, turning downtown streets into swirling rivers. Nearly 5 inches fell over the city's hospitals, turning the medical district into an island. Five inches fell on Johns Island, turning parking lots into lakes. It was a mess. And it’s not normal.

Set aside the notion of climate change. The climate has always changed. The real story is about speed. The pace of change. From rain bombs to higher sea levels, the impacts are coming faster. This is as real as Wednesday's storm. And the one four weeks ago. And so many others in the past five years.

In the coming months, The Post and Courier will explore these accelerating forces and their many ripple effects. We’ll explore the underlying science and responses by our elected leaders. We’ll look at the winners and losers. We’ll examine potential course corrections.

And we’ll do this in real time, as the king tides rise, the hurricanes gain strength, amid the thunder and lightning. Why? Because a breaking news story only skims the surface of what’s really happening. Deeper currents can remain hidden amid the immediate need to stay dry or move your belongings to higher ground.

The most pressing steering current is climate speeding, the pace of change.

It's an issue that carries particularly high stakes in places where land meets the sea.

Wednesday's midday deluge showed why.

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Walker Condon walks home through the flood from work carrying her shoes on Calhoun Street Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

2. The storm hits

It seemed like a normal late spring thunderstorm. Forecasters warned about some rain, but nothing like this. It moved in just before noon with clouds the color of bruises, gray and laden with moisture. Suddenly, the skies erupted with lightning and thunder and wind.

The National Weather Service broadcast an alert about a possible tornado on Johns Island. High winds ripped down trees on Wadmalaw Island. Hail the size of half-dollars fell west of the Ashley. Lightning struck two homes on Johns Island.

And the rain kept coming.

Three inches in Mount Pleasant.

Four inches in James Island.

Five inches on Wadmalaw Island.

Charleston has always had heavy rain, but as the climate warms, these storms are stronger and more intense. Why?

The laws of thermodynamics: A growing human population has unleashed massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases, mostly by burning fossil fuels. These gases trap heat, and warmer air holds more moisture. When this moisture falls as rain, it releases energy in the form of heat. It's like adding an accelerant to fire: more heat, more moisture, more heat — and you end up with more downpours such as Wednesday's.

And the one just four weeks ago, which dumped 6 inches on James Island.

And the crazy one in October 2015. 

That storm dumped 17 to 23 inches on peninsular Charleston, roughly equivalent to 3.2 billion gallons of water. It was akin to moving Niagara Falls over Charleston for an hour. Much of the peninsula south of Calhoun Street merged with the Atlantic. Public officials called it a 1,000-year event, including then-Gov. Nikki Haley.

But record-breaking downpours followed in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, Hurricane Florence dumped another 23 inches in parts of South Carolina. Rivers inland from Myrtle Beach rose as high as two-story homes.

All told, the Southeast has seen a 27 percent increase in the number of downpours since 1958.

All this water from above is meeting another accelerating force below, a sea level rising faster than many scientists originally predicted.

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America Street and other neighborhoods were covered by water after several inches of rain fell and flooded parts of the peninsula Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

3. Rising

Wednesday's storm hit at low tide, but within an hour, water covered downtown Charleston’s western edge. Susan Lyons lives on Gadsden Street and watched in awe. “It happened all of a sudden." There's a point where a storm goes from something normal to one where you feel as if you've lost control, she said. "It's scary. I'm looking outside watching the water come up." 

Residents scrambled to move their cars. Water coursed down a high spot on Calhoun Street, with one dark tributary moving toward the Medical University of South Carolina and another into a nearby neighborhood. Green garbage cans toppled and floated like rafts. Their contents moved down Halsey Street as fast as a resident walking in hip waders. The water flowed with such force it created a current with ripples.

City officials set up barricades on streets into the medical district, including primary routes to hospital emergency rooms. In all, more than 22 streets were closed throughout the city. Pablo Santos was on the way to Goose Creek but was caught in the chaos. His GPS told him to head down Gadsden Street because other roads were closed. But Gadsden has a long history of flooding, and his car submerged at the intersection.

"I just didn't think it would get this bad," he said.

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Edna Richardson waits for the water to recede on Calhoun Street in Charleston so she can leave work on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. “I’ve worked here for 28 years," said Richardson, who works at the Costa Building. “I think its getting worse,” she said. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Nearly 4.7 inches fell in this area, according to a local weather observer on Halsey Street. At least 4.6 inches fell in West Ashley, said Shade Nofziger, who lives near the Early Bird Diner. At one point, rain was falling at a rate of more than 4 inches an hour, he said.

When so much water arrives so quickly, the city’s gravity-fed storm drains get stopped up, no matter if it's low or high tide. Low areas fill up like clogged toilets and overflow into yards, stores and crawl spaces.

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Morgan McBee and wife Leah McBee survey the flood water depth on Ashley Avenue Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. The couple, who live in the neighborhood, had 4.67 inches of rain at their house. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Since so much land here is a few inches to a few feet above sea level, even small changes can make a big difference, as Lyons and Santos saw on Gadsden Street.

And given what scientists have learned in recent years, big changes are happening now: Seas are rising faster than they did a few decades ago.

And the pace is picking up.

4. Upward curve

Scientists have good data on this. They’ve been measuring the sea level in Charleston Harbor continuously since 1921. Since then, the sea level here rose about 1 foot.

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Part of this has nothing to do with saltwater. When the last ice age ended 20,000 years ago, sheets of ice melted in what today is New England. Freed from the weight, land there moved upward while land to the south, including South Carolina, sank like the lower end of a seesaw. 

Known as subsidence, this sinking has happened at a relatively slow rate — about 5 inches during the past century. This gives marsh-building sea grasses time to trap sediment and rise with the water, as long as the pace isn't so quick.

But in the mid-2000s, scientists began to rethink the pace of sea rise. It wasn't rising in a linear way as many had thought. It was accelerating. An upward curve. Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science were among the first to pinpoint this accelerating trend in specific areas, including Charleston.

This was no easy task given the sloshing nature of the sea, said Molly Mitchell, one of the institute’s lead researchers. Natural tidal fluctuations and weather patterns can mask long-term changes. But over time, the patterns in Charleston and other coastal cities were unmistakable.

From 1990 to 2000, the sea level rose 1.4 inches.

From 2000 to 2010, it added an additional 2 inches.

From 2010 to now: 2.7 inches more.

Apply this curve to real life, and you had an explanation for the record-breaking number of sunny day and nuisance floods in Charleston — floods that occur at high tide. Those happened about four times a year 50 years ago. Now that average is closer to 40.

Follow this curve into the future, and you see a growing threat — a sea level that rises an additional 3.2 inches by 2030.

Then 4.1 inches between 2030 and 2040

And 5.3 inches between 2040 and 2050.

Another foot in 30 years.

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Morgan Perry and Kira Elizabeth Schlepp peer out of the front door of Kira Elizabeth Design Studio to see the water rising on Calhoun Street on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Charleston. The shop specializes in wedding dress alterations and was open today for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic closed business, but it had brides cancel due to the flooding. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

5. Accelerating everything

Wednesday's deluge was so intense that a foot of water soon covered parts of Market Street, a taste of the future. It overwhelmed the new tunnels designed to help drain this tourist mecca more quickly. Garbage cans bobbed into the calf-deep water as a small geyser spouted from an overburdened drain.

The storm moved in quickly, and then seemed to hover over the area.

"It was a lot of moisture, a lot of energy in the atmosphere, quite a bit of spin and the frontal system in the area trapping things in place," said Peter Mohlin, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

About a mile north, water poured into the city’s East Side, a historic, predominantly black neighborhood. At Amherst and Drake streets, a whole row of cars sat stewing in a brown soup of debris. A sign outside a nearby church promised: “BETTER DAYS ARE COMING!”

A couple blocks away on America Street, Joe Watson stood outside Mary’s Sweet Shop, a longtime snack shop and community hub. Watson grew up here, and for 62 years he’s watched the waters rise and fall along with the neighborhood’s fortunes.

The area has seen increased diversity and investment in recent years. But all that is being threatened by climate-driven rains that flood the neighborhood many more times year. Watson pointed to a gnarled tree that was unofficial flood line when he was a kid.

Now, the waters crest a half a block farther or more up the road. And they’re deeper. A lot deeper. “Now, it just takes 45 minutes of heavy rain and the whole street gets flooded.”

The rain was particularly heavy west of the city, including the flood-prone South Windermere Center. At Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply, Joe Kowaleski, an employee, said it was fortunate that this storm came at low tide. The last bad storm in April dropped 5 inches in two hours and came near high tide. Water filled the store then. On shelves inside, employees have made marks showing how high up water went during past floods.


Charleston firefighters check a vehicle stalled by floodwater at King and Huger streets. Heavy rain flooded the Charleston area on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, stranding drivers on inundated streets and forcing evacuations from some buildings. Matthew Fortner/Staff

Elsewhere, cars stalled as they tried to drive through thigh-deep ponds at King and Huger streets. On Johns Island, customers at the Bi-Lo emerged from the store and stared at the parking lot, which looked like a pond, with shopping carts partially submerged. “It’s never been this bad on Johns Island,” said Amanda Yowell, adding that she was planning on moving.

In West Ashley's Moreland neighborhood, Kathleen Sottile, a retired nurse, stood in her flooded front yard. Water reached the second step of her stoop. She's lived there for 42 years but said the flooding has gotten really bad just in the past decade. After another storm, she shelled out $1,200 to raise her air-conditioning unit higher off the ground.

These floodwaters would recede, but a more permanent 1-foot rise in the sea level would regularly flood 64,000 acres in Charleston County, about a quarter of its land, a College of Charleston study found. Nearly 1,000 homes, offices and other buildings would be affected.

Already, more than half of South Carolina's shoreline is eroding under an onslaught of rising seas, pounding storms and other scouring forces, according to a study in 2018 by Georgia Southern University geologist.

And we're seeing evidence of the climate's acceleration beyond our marshes and flooding streets. We're seeing twice as many extreme heat waves today than in the 1970s. We're seeing "real feel" temperatures in Maryland above 122 degrees. The heat index in the Persian Gulf now sometimes exceeds 132 degrees.

The sea sucks up 90 percent of this heat, and we're seeing the ocean temperature rise 40 percent faster than United Nations experts said 5 years ago. We're seeing the ocean literally expand because of this heat, raising sea level even more. 

We're seeing permafrost melt in Alaska and ice at the poles fall like cubes into a drink. Greenland has lost 1 trillion tons of ice in just 4 years. 

We’ve seen the human toll accelerate, as stronger hurricanes saw through the Caribbean and Southeastern United States. We've seen the toll grow because more frequent wildfires in California and Australia. More military deaths from heat stroke. Rising insurance rates to meet these new risks. Bleaching coral reefs. Earlier springs, earlier tropical storms, later autumns. We’ve put our foot on the accelerator, and the planet is struggling to keep up.

Wednesday afternoon was soggy, but the sun came out three hours later. A young man kayaked down Gadsen Street. Near President Street, two men drank beer and drifted on pool floats, as if on a very slow rafting trip. More rain was expected Thursday, but for the time being, the city was drying out.

Another fierce storm had blown through the Lowcountry.

But the deeper, more important forces are still with us, moving faster by the year.


People float down President Street during flooding on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Chloe Johnson, Thomas Novelly, Gregory Yee, Mikaela Porter, Fleming Smith, Sara Coello, David Slade, Thad Moore, Stephen Hobbs, Jerrel Floyd and Glenn Smith contributed to this report.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme, senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier, has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Twitter: @tbartelme Signal: 843-412-2283.

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