EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.
Flooding and sea-level rise pose a critical threat to Charleston's business community, the workforce it supports and the viability of low-lying areas as sites for future investment.
On most days, that threat feels far away.
But on days like Monday, when a surging tide filled coastal areas to the brim and marshes spilled into roadways, it’s clear how close the threat really is.
Under a bright-blue sky, a 7.9-foot tide rolled in late Monday morning. It was nearly a foot above the level when the area begins to see flooding, rain or not.
By 11 a.m., low-lying streets on barrier islands, such as Folly Beach and the Isle of Palms, had merged with the Atlantic. Seawater poured into ditches on James Island, then flowed across streets like Battery Park Drive. A walker there stopped in an ankle-deep pool and then hopped on a slowing pickup to carry him over. Water lapped over the curbs around Charleston's sprawling medical district and caused tourists to make detours on The Battery.
These sunny-day floods used to be rare, something that happened a handful of times a year through the 1980s. But so far this year, Charleston has seen 53 flooding events. That’s the fourth most on record — and there are still more than two months of tides left on the calendar.
Floods, both from the skies and the sea, can be headaches, routine ones that can numb us to the incremental nature of their impacts.
Yet, propelled by the accelerating forces of climate change, these effects could become a fundamental threat to the area economy, estimates from the College of Charleston show.
By 2050, flooding could directly impact hundreds of businesses, the college found. By 2075, it will be thousands. And by 2100, a majority of businesses will feel the effects of rising waters. All this threatens the work of more than 100,000 people and an estimated $13 billion in lost revenue.
Flooding, in short, will eventually “threaten public safety, commerce, tourism, historical sites, transportation, access to health care, and the local environment,” the college’s researchers concluded.
Already, flooding has spawned new routines: The Port of Charleston has preset plans for where to move cargo and equipment when the tides are especially high. The transit system has backup routes for most of its bus lines, in case water blocks their path. The city keeps road barricades parked next to low-lying intersections, so predictable are the problem spots.
Some of this played out Monday as the tides rolled in. Some of it didn't because the region's watery edge didn't quite reach high enough. But the Lowcountry was lucky. Had rain fallen on this rising layer of water, disruptions would have multiplied fast. Monday's king tide was a taste of our future, flavored with salt.
A new flooding normal
At the Isle of Palms Marina Market, flooding on 41st Avenue, just outside, was a nuisance for customers and employees. One worker for the store flooded her moped during Sunday’s high tide.
“I definitely think we lose business because of it sometimes,” said Jess Blaszczak, who was at the checkout desk as the waters rose. Many customers simply waited an hour and came back later.
Blaszczak herself got caught in her Mini Cooper in waters on her own street, just a few blocks away, more than a year ago. A sudden tide swamped the car and the fire department had to rescue her, and even helped her wash out the interior.
Miraculously, the car survived, and she now opts to take it instead of her golf cart to work when waters rise.
In the parking lot, Chase Anderson, of Mount Pleasant, had just driven through the salty street in his Ford F-150 and was wondering whether he needed to hose down the underside.
He was surprised by where the water was coming from — the infiltration seeped in from a drainage ditch connecting the area to the swollen ocean.
The flooding was dramatic enough, “I wondered if it was something other than the tide," he said.
Other cities, similar struggles
As the sea rises around our coasts, Charleston is hardly alone in facing a future shaped by water. While the Lowcountry grasps the contours of its flooding problem, other cities shed light on the risks emerging here and offer a preview of our potential future.
Far up the Chesapeake Bay, the city of Annapolis, Md., is beginning to learn how flooding impacts business in the city’s historic downtown district.
Researchers at Stanford University used parking revenue data to study how many visitors went to Annapolis’ City Dock, a tourist destination, in different conditions. The more it flooded, they found, the less people visited the area, which features restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
Over the course of a year, they estimated that high-tide flooding cost the area 1.7 percent of its visitors — a subtle but significant decline. And, as in Charleston, the situation could grow worse: If Annapolis sees just 1 foot of sea-level rise, the researchers project that visits to businesses in the area will fall by about a quarter. That could happen in the next 20 to 30 years, according to the federal government's intermediate forecasts.
That tracks with the College of Charleston’s estimates here: It will take time for the Lowcountry’s business community to be directly impacted, but when the problems begin to ramp up, they will ramp up fast.
“The losses due to recurrent flooding are already affecting the profitability of these businesses, and the losses will worsen as sea- level rises unless changes are made,” the Stanford researchers wrote of Annapolis.
In other cities, leaders are likewise growing worried about the impact of flooding on heavier industry. Consider, Norfolk, Va., which shares some similarities to the Charleston area.
Like Charleston, Norfolk is low and flat; neither city reaches more than a few dozen feet above sea level. And, like Charleston, Norfolk’s economic vitality is closely linked to the sea. Its economy centers on a major seaport and a massive Navy base.
Its other large employers aren’t far from the water, either. Even the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise will put 3 to 5 percent of present-day Norfolk under water by 2100. Norfolk’s Vision 2100 report warns that it is vulnerable to “market shocks and long-term stresses” from flooding. Its flooding-vulnerable employers include its port, hospital district and public universities, a list similar to Charleston’s.
Already, the effects of flooding have proven problematic: Naval Station Norfolk has said it fears base operations being disrupted by flooding. It was forced to build a floodwall around the area where ships are serviced, because its dry docks were being infiltrated by seawater.
Consider, then, that the port and naval base in Norfolk sit in an area that floods only a third as often as Charleston does, according to estimates by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In Charleston, the South Carolina Ports Authority says it has pre-set plans for how to move cargo and equipment when floodwaters infiltrate its property, which happens occasionally, but it insists the problem is manageable for now. It has told investors that it thinks it can adapt with the rising sea. But it is not without concerns: Earlier this year, when the city began considering a seawall that would surround the peninsula but not the port property, the agency said it was worried the project could push water onto its downtown terminals.
And in a report to investors last year, the port acknowledged that high tides in Charleston Harbor are getting higher and the nuisance flooding more frequent. Monday was an example: The entrance to the Ports Authority's Union Pier in downtown Charleston was under water, as it often is when abnormally high tides sweep through the harbor.
Under the Union of Concerned Scientists’ medium-high projection of sea-level rise, Charleston could see flooding about 75 days a year just a decade from now. By 2045, the city will face flooding every other day.
And over time, the floodwaters will threaten a growing portion of the region’s businesses.
Local firms hit hard
Monday's flood was surprising to some, but to many area business owners, high water has become routine.
The ankle-deep canal of water that filled South Market Street wasn't a shock to shopkeepers along the stretch in the heart of Charleston’s tourism district. Many business owners keep sandbags at the ready by their doors, just in case floodwaters jumped the curb.
Karel Blass, general manager of Kilwin’s Chocolates, said drainage improvements the city undertook in recent years has made a noticeable difference in both the severity and duration of flooding. But there is only so much that can be done to keep the ocean at bay, and businesses along the Market have had to adapt to flooding as part of their existence, he said.
“There’s really no getting around it,” he said.
On the other side of the long sheds where vendors sell sweetgrass baskets, T-shirts, and other novelties, a sense of resignation set in about the channel of water that formed between merchants and the customers trying to buy their wares. After the coronavirus shut down the Market for months earlier in the year, vendors were now being thwarted with floodwaters dampening their sales.
“We can never win,” sighed Ling Chen, a Summerville woman who has sold ornate Chinese fabrics there for nearly two decades. “We can only do the best we can. We have no choice. The sea is right there.”
Jonzetta Taylor’s family has sold goods in the Market since 1910. She’s been there herself since 1971, manning her mother Edna’s booth and selling barbecue sauces, cookbooks and other Lowcountry treats.
“Maybe I should start selling boots, too,” Taylor said with a laugh.
The pandemic has forced vendors to sell to customers through the sheds' streetside windows, but a 3-foot moat along the perimeter Monday forced customers to jump the expanse or give up. Taylor donned boots so she could wade to them instead.
“It’s not how we want it to be, but it’s still better than being closed down,” she said.
Taylor is not alone, according to a survey by Lowcountry Local First, a nonprofit that advocates for independent businesses. The group says 65 percent of its members — all of them locally owned small businesses — were impacted by increased flooding and severe weather in 2019. About 44 percent said they lost revenue.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce — the lead advocate for businesses in the region — has acknowledged that the Lowcountry has a problem, with a rising sea threatening a growing population that too often lives and works on top of filled-in wetlands.
“The scale and urgency of our region’s flooding challenge is greater now than at any time in our long history,” the group said in a sweeping statement last year.
But while there is broad acknowledgement that flooding will threaten the region’s vitality, there is less agreement about the contours of those risks — and what to do about them.
The chamber, for instance, has put forward broad goals — like for stormwater regulations to be “rigorous,” and for local governments to collaborate on flooding solutions — but it has stopped short of detailing specific solutions. Its legislative wish list for 2020 doesn’t mention flooding.
The group hasn't taken a clear position on major flood-mitigation plans, like the proposed seawall around the Charleston peninsula. In a statement, it called for a cost-benefit analysis of walling off the city. In evaluating the proposal, it said, Charleston should consider the economic engines it would affect, like the city's hospital district and the port terminals downtown.
The S.C. Ports Authority, for its part, has raised concerns about the project because the wall would separate its property from the city and potentially drive water onto its two downtown terminals. One stores BMW and Volvo cars on their way to be exported. The other, a cruise ship terminal, is being considered for redevelopment, like so much of the peninsula's eastern edge.
The Charleston business community’s flooding concerns can typically be placed in one of two categories, said Scott Barhight, the chamber’s vice president for government relations.
There are the concerns about direct impacts, like loss of business due to closed roads and physical damage to flooded storefronts. And then there are the much more complex indirect impacts, like how the region’s issues with severe weather and sea-level rise will affect perceptions of the area. Will the stream of new residents slow? Will deep-pocketed developers reconsider investing in Charleston?
Those questions still seem off in the distance, and they have not stopped a parade of new hotels and mixed-use developments. At the end of last year, the commercial real estate firm CBRE projected that the Charleston region would add more than 6,000 apartments in 2020 and 2021, on top of some 10,000 built over the past few years. CBRE reported that about 2,500 new hotel rooms were under development, too.
So strong is the interest in building in the Lowcountry that the developer of one high-profile hotel project agreed to pick up some of the cost of improving drainage downtown. The builders of The Cooper, an upscale 225-room hotel beside Joe Riley Waterfront Park, are paying to add another pipe to drain water from 30 acres of downtown Charleston and carry it to the Cooper River. (The hotel is beside the outfall.) Lowe, the project’s Los Angeles-based developer, said it’s picking up most of the roughly $2.1 million cost; the city is paying just $300,000.
The project represents a big bet on Charleston’s ability to stay dry: The hotel’s front yard sits just feet from 400 feet of waterfront.
If the influx of money seeking to build here seems disconnected from the dire projections for Charleston’s future, consider the timing.
The impacts of flooding are expected to accelerate in the middle of the century, around when the typical 30-year home loan signed today will be paid off. Loans for commercial developments will be paid off even sooner. And when flooding reaches a majority of businesses around 2100, the buildings rising today may be past their useful life.
Business leaders haven’t had to fully reckon with the region’s future. But concerns are beginning to bubble up.
The Bank of South Carolina, for instance, in October began an effort to calculate the exact flooding risk for all the properties it has financed to better understand how much risk it’s exposed to. Fleetwood Hassell, the bank’s chief executive officer, said most properties will likely come off the bank’s books before sea-level rise threatens them, but navigating the prospect of flooding is becoming an unavoidable part of doing business here.
“If you’re real estate lenders in the Lowcountry, that’s one of the risks you have to deal with, and it’s very difficult to mitigate it short of not lending,” Hassell said.
Gary White, a real estate developer and former member of City Council, said his company checks maps of projected sea-level rise before it gets serious about a project. It won’t consider a property if an additional 3 feet of water would inundate it. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said South Carolina could see 3.9 feet of sea-level rise by 2100.)
That may not be enough buffer to keep properties dry through the end of the century, but White said like most developers, he’s looking 15 to 20 years into the future. Beyond that, he said, it’s too hard to predict real estate trends. To mitigate the risk, the company looks for properties that could be repurposed if needed, so it’s not stuck with a one-use building in a changing environment.
Even so, that rule is enough to disqualify much of the city’s peninsula. The problems are particularly acute in its medical district, which houses three hospitals — the largest employers in downtown Charleston — that includes the region’s only Level 1 trauma center.
The downtown hospitals have said the flood-prone medical district needs help. These health systems are lobbying for government funds to install pumps, walkways and green spaces that would alleviate flooding. The State Infrastructure Bank this summer agreed to pay $21.5 million toward finishing a major drainage project along the nearby Septima P. Clark Parkway.
Gov. Henry McMaster called for the state to kick in another $10 million to extend the project to the medical district, where major thoroughfares were squeezed by standing water without a drop of rain falling. The state Legislature did not include it in its annual budget. White, who left City Council after an unsuccessful bid for mayor last year, said the city should focus on that sort of cheaper, more-targeted project to move water out of the city instead of pursuing big-ticket efforts to keep it from coming in.
When he chaired the council’s budget committee, he said, the city had regular requests for emergency work on drainpipes that had collapsed. He suggested the city should undertake a study to find collapsed pipes before they cause roads to become rivers.
'Our existential threat'
Mayor John Tecklenburg said Charleston’s challenge is to ward off sea-level rise — a problem he calls “our existential threat” — within the constraints of the city’s financial resources.
The city is finalizing a system to prioritize projects, emphasizing work in areas that have outsized economic importance or that the city has overlooked in the past. For instance, the city is paying for engineers to draw up plans to extend the Crosstown drainage project to the medical district so work can start as soon as the state provides funding for it.
But he said Charleston’s choice is not to pick between big projects and small ones; it will take all kinds. The city’s focus has traditionally been to take on projects that move water out quickly, but to live along rising seas, the mayor said, the city will also need infrastructure that keeps it out.
The need is dire: Success is the difference between the city saving its economic vitality and the College of Charleston’s dire projections coming to fruition.
“The primary purpose is just to protect … the city both economically and physically for our citizens who live here now. And if we’re — when we’re successful in doing that, I think that interest economically will continue,” Tecklenburg said.
On a smaller scale, businesses owners likewise face challenges that are at once immediate and existential. Sometimes a pop-up storm or an instance of sunny-day flooding will have little to no impact on a particular business.
But, on other days, that same storefront could be blocked by floodwaters, requiring an hours-long cleanup process and reduced revenue for the day.
Oftentimes, it's impossible to tell until the sea reaches high tide or the rain starts to fall which it will be.
At EastSide Soul Food on America Street, Monday's flooding didn't touch the business, but it's common enough for floodwaters to breach the storefront that owner Brooks Harrison has it down to a routine.
First, he'll wait for some of the water to drain away on its own. Then he mops up the mess, which takes the better part of an hour. Finally, he disinfects everything inside — “who knows what’s in that water,” he said — and puts everything back in its place.
By then, three or four hours have passed, almost half his typical business day.
Those kinds of cleanups are a glimpse of what could become a regular occurrence for business owners in the Lowcountry if action isn't taken to mitigate the effects of the rising sea, according to the College of Charleston’s projections. It’s a future of floods beyond mere nuisances like closed roads and snarled traffic.
Floods that are dismissed as a headache now would accelerate. The impacts will jump from dozens of businesses to thousands. The sales lost will jump from millions of dollars to billions. And flooding will no longer be a problem for an unlucky, isolated few: Every business sector will be touched.
Mary Katherine Wildeman, Chloe Johnson, Glenn Smith and Tony Bartelme contributed to this report.