By Karen Savage
The Atlantic Ocean has always lapped at Charleston’s shores, but with climate change steadily raising sea levels, that once-beloved water has become a menacing invader. City streets are now regularly inundated. Last year, the city experienced a record-breaking 89 days of sunny day flooding, which means the city was under water without a hint of bad weather.
“It affects every aspect of work that we do in the city of Charleston,” said Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s chief resilience officer and director of emergency management. “On those days, it requires police to be directing traffic, closing roads, moving people through the city in ways that they can safely get where they need to get.”
Once rare, 8-foot tides—which can stop the city in its tracks—have pushed into Charleston neighborhoods at least six times this year, tying a record set in 2015. On those days, outpatient medical procedures are canceled. Those who live in or must commute through low-lying areas are delayed and some can’t get out at all. Schools are forced to push back start times or release early to keep students and staff safe.
“Normal work is stopping and the city is pivoting to deal with these increased flooding events on the days and times that they occur,” Wilbert said, adding that the city can easily spend $10,000 per flooding event.
Charleston city leaders are keenly aware that in order to survive, the city must adapt, but that adaptation comes at a steep price. A recent $3 million study of coastal storm impacts, done in partnership with the Army Corp of Engineers, produced the potential solution of an 8-mile-long and 12-foot-high sea wall as well as other infrastructure improvements, including raising homes and roads. The estimated price tag: $1.75 billion.
Those staggering numbers are a big reason the city recently decided to try to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for these costs. It filed suit against ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Chevron, Marathon, and several other fossil fuel companies in September, alleging they have known for decades that their products drive climate change but deliberately have deceived the public, press and policy makers about that harm. The city is seeking compensatory damages, triple damages, and punitive damages.
Following the Army Corps of Engineers study, Charleston has begun updating its city plan. The first principle is “water first,” which anchors it “where water is and where water is going to be.”
The city used a planning process known as the Dutch Dialogues. Based on lessons learned from the Netherlands’ experience living with water, participants compiled a final report outlining ways the city can become more resilient in the face of climate change.
While there is no shortage of potential action plans—and as of yet, no consensus on which plan or plans to implement first—one thing is abundantly clear: Charleston will need an extraordinary amount of funding, or face the agonizing realization that parts of the city could soon be unlivable. With a population of just over 138,000, the city doesn’t have the luxury of a large tax base. Tourism is a huge part of its economy, and that depends heavily on its charming downtown and waterfront, exactly what is most at risk from climate change.
The Water Isn’t Waiting for Answers
Life-changing impacts are coming sooner than most people realize, particularly for some of Charleston’s most at-risk residents, according to a study recently released by Climate Central.
Up to about 570 affordable housing units in the city could flood at least once per year by 2050. That number could balloon to more than 3,000 units per year by 2100.
“Those living in affordable housing units are already among the most vulnerable among us,” Scott Kulp, one of the authors and a researcher with Climate Central said on a recent webinar.
Every day that investment is delayed, the risk increases for residents, who may lack the resources to prepare and recover from flooding, Kulp added.
“If communities aim to preserve affordable housing stock in coastal areas, significant resiliency planning and investment is likely to be needed,” the authors wrote in the study.
That doesn’t always happen.
“Because of limited resources, you have a tug of war between communities,” councilmember Perry K. Waring, chairman of Charleston’s public works committee, said.
Low-income communities and communities of color often say they are left out when it comes to flood protection, Waring added. “And there’s some truth to that; the majority of the money goes to areas where the rich people live.”
With more funding, the city could do more.
“We’re raising our stormwater fees to generate the collection of tax revenue towards improving infrastructure for stormwater,” Waring said.
For the last 30 years, Charleston has relied on those fees to pay for the effects of climate change and a staggering amount of work still needs to be done, Wilbert said.
“These are really expensive—these are tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars for the projects that we’re talking about.”
Even Finding Funding Costs Money
In 2015, Charleston’s projected sea level rise was one to two feet over the next 50 years. That projection was updated last year to between one and a half to two feet, according to Wilbert.
While best-known for its coastal beauty, the Charleston city limits stretch inland from the coast.
“You can go 15 miles inland and we have major flooding problems in relatively new subdivisions, and with the changing climate, sea level rise, extreme rain events, we are seeing more and more flooding, some of it very significant in areas like that,” Wilbert said.
In older parts of the city, underground infrastructure is more than 100 years old.
“It’s a major problem because one thing about infrastructure in particular, that’s underground, you talking, frankly, billions of dollars—and people never see it,” Waring said
“Our entire city budget is slightly north of $200 million—one drainage project in the city of Charleston is $200 million,” Waring said. “Cobbling together state funding and grant funding, and obviously some water fees is quite the task, because our whole stormwater budget is probably somewhere in the vicinity, on an annual basis, of maybe $15 million—that’s nowhere near what we need.”
Even finding funding costs money.
“We hired a grant writer on to tackle this with federal grants—you need somebody full-time who’s out finding the grants, working on the grants, submitting and managing them, so we have a number of grant-writers working strictly on this now,” Wilbert said.
Before Mayor John Tecklenburg tapped him to serve as the city’s first chief resilience officer in 2017, Wilbert served as Charleston’s sole emergency management director.
“We now have three—that’s a heck of an increase, plus you have me, so you can almost say four,” Wilbert said. “We created an entire storm water department … gave it a director and a full staff so that we could keep up with these events as they’re ever accelerating.”
Wilbert is quick to point out that a bulk of the hard work is shouldered by city employees who often don’t get the credit they deserve.
“It’s the people behind the scenes, it’s the police, it’s the fire, it’s the public service it’s the stormwater guys that are really out working nights, weekends when we have any of these events,” Wilbert said. “They’re almost not seen and not heard, but they’re making things happen to deal with what is a really challenging situation.”
Like everything else, equipping them to protect city residents has a price tag.
“The fire department is buying new equipment so they can get through higher and higher water, we’re buying personal protective equipment—which is not inexpensive—so that we can get firemen outfitted and trained to do more and more in-water rescues,” Wilbert said. “Our police department has been on a path of buying more and more SUV’s so that we can move around in these flooding events.”
How to fund it all weighs heavily on the minds of city leaders. The astronomical amounts needed to shore up the city cannot be feasibly raised through tax hikes and fee increases, which place a heavy burden on residents already stretched thin.
Waring has watched as both the Obama and Trump administrations discussed—but failed to implement—a federal infrastructure program. He holds out hope that Charleston will receive much-needed funding under the Biden administration.
City leaders know the lawsuit against fossil fuel companies will not proceed quickly. The companies are fighting tooth and nail to avoid being held accountable for damage their products did to the climate. The city says it is in for the long haul and says its complaint presented plenty of evidence to back up its allegations. Yet no litigation is certain and even if successful, collecting damages could take years. “You can’t hang your hat on that,” Waring cautioned.
In order to survive, Charleston must defend existing homes, businesses, and infrastructure and at the same time ensure that planning for sea level rise and other effects of climate change are the top priority in all future plans, according to Wilbert.
“At the end of the day the Atlanta Ocean is pretty darn big, and we’re going to have to find ways, even more expensive, more aggressive ways to deal with it in the future and as we go forward—and it’s not going to be cheap.”