Charleston’s plan to battle the sea

For decades, from Maine to Florida, taxpayer billions have been spent on efforts to try to hold back the sea from rising tides and hurricanes with questionable success. Lisa Fletcher reports from Charleston, South Carolina on plans for, and concerns about, a sea change.

Hurricane Joaquin, Hurricane Matthew, and Hurricane Irma – three consecutive storms to hit Charleston, South Carolina. The storm surge and tidal flooding hammered the historic city.

Lisa (standup): Charleston was founded in 1670 and ever since, has been in a battle with the sea. I’m standing on a seawall that was built in the 19th century and it’s done a pretty good job of protecting these homes from the water, but, as sea levels continue to rise and storms become more frequent, the new battle for Charleston is figuring out how to protect it as we move into the 21st century.

Average high tide here is about 5 and a half feet and between 2019 and 2020, 157 tides reached flood stage of seven feet. It took nearly 60 years prior to that for the same number of damaging tides to occur.

Winslow Hastie: So this is what we call High Battery.

Those projections preoccupy Winslow Hastie, president and CEO of the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Hastie: Our relationship to the water is sort of why we exist. It’s what put Charleston on the map and made it such an important economic center for the entire south. We’ve always battled flooding and water but it’s just the increased intensity of the storms and the increased frequency.

Hurricanes and high tides are part of living on the coast, but the rising tides, and threat level, have led to a proposal by the army corps of engineers to build a man made structure in Charleston, to combat mother nature.

It’s all part of the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018” which released more than a hundred million taxpayer dollars to study solutions to reduce damage caused by coastal flooding.

The current strategy calls for a wall stretching around parts of the historic city’s 8 mile perimeter, reaching as high as 12 feet, costing taxpayers more than a billion dollars.

Lisa: Is the community embracing this idea of a seawall?

Hastie: It’s really interesting and it depends on who you talk to. A lot of people, their knee-jerk reaction is, A, this is way too expensive. How are we going to be able to accomplish this? B, we’re going to neglect other areas of the city. People that don’t live on the peninsula are very concerned that we’re going to eat up all our resources just protecting this.

Questions Charleston City council member Mike Seekings is also asking.

Mike Seekings: We have a number of different needs. Do we put all our eggs in one basket and build a wall around the city, 8.7 miles long, 12 feet high to the exclusion of other things?

Seekings represents a large portion of residents living in the city’s historic district.

Seekings: A couple or $3 billion for a wall that doesn’t deal with sea level rise, that doesn’t deal with higher tides, and that has some challenges when it comes to storm water, is something we’re going to have to really weigh.

Lisa: So it sounds like you’re not against the broader idea of protecting the city from storm surge and sea level rise. You’re just not sure this is the right plan?

Seekings: Right. Is it smart? We have to manage water. And when you build a wall to stop water from coming in, that isn’t necessarily water management, that’s water retardation.

As the Army Corps nears the end of a multi year study on flood mitigation, and talking about a purchase price of 1.1 billion, with projections once as high as three billion, with no guarantees it’s going to work, Charleston residents may well have reason to question the seawall project. Two years ago we visited an Army Corps project in New Orleans. At a cost of 14-billion, it’s one of the largest public works projects in history.

Because of rising seas and shrinking levees, the army corps now says this massive project will no longer protect the city in as few as four years.

Something Lieutenant General Honore’, who managed relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, told me two years ago.

Lisa: So you expect the levees to fail?

Lt. Gen. Honore’: It’s not ‘if’ – it’s ‘when’ because they’re made out of dirt and rock and concrete and they can be overmatched either by rainfall or by water surge coming in from the Gulf.

And the price tag of any protection is growing.

In the next 18 years, according to one study, protecting all coastal cities in the U.S. with seawalls, would require $400 billion dollars.

Right now, Miami is considering an Army Corps project with a price tag of more than $6 billion for a 20-foot sea wall cutting through one of Miami’s most fashionable waterfront districts.

The Army Corps declined an interview about the proposal with Full Measure, citing as a reason, the project study is not complete.

Considering sea water management projects have unreliable results, it begs the question, are they worthy of taxpayer dollars?

Seekings: The number one priority, for sure, is public safety and making sure that we are protected. But it has to be done in a way that’s realistic and that’s consistent with who we are as an old and historic and very important city.

And, cautions Winslow Hastie, consistent with the historic beauty of Charleston

Lisa: When you think about the Army Corps of Engineers, you don’t think about aesthetics. How can you marry the two so it is functional, yet doesn’t distract from the things that make this such a beautiful tourist destination?

Hastie: That is the key question is how we can insert such a huge, and I would argue important piece of infrastructure into a very fragile and historic environment. That’s our role, honestly, and the role of the residents and the broader community here is to really hold the Army Corps’ feet to the fire.

The next phase of the project – aesthetics. What a seawall would look like, in a city that lives on her looks, that may be more important than the $400 million dollars Charleston may have to contribute to building the wall.

For Full Measure, I’m Lisa Fletcher in Charleston.

Watch Full Measure: Stopping the Sea

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11 thoughts on “Charleston’s plan to battle the sea”

  1. I love when people show how ignorant they are when they think they can control Mother Nature (God) by throwing money and concrete an steel at what they think is a problem. There are so many more important and pressing issues in the world that need attention verses trying to protect someone’s million dollar waterfront investments. 4000 years ago, Nobody thought the Nile river would dry up and a whole civilization would be lost either. There is not enough long term information in any record keeping to date to know what us really going on. Not even pre-civil war info. The Earth is billions of years old. All these individuals involved in this are voicing info from a place of emotion and fear.

  2. Per NOAA, at current trends Charleston will see an increase in sea level of 1.1 feet every 100 years (–meaning that (assuming rate of SLR does not change), a 250-year plan would need to account for less than 3 feet of sea level rise (and accompanying higher extremes). This pales in comparison to New Orleans’ nearly 2 feet of rise per 100 years, or Grand Isle, LA’s rise of over 3 feet per 100 years (both of which are largely due to subsidence, not actual sea level rise). IMHO the really interesting part of this piece is the consideration for and challenge of aesthetics. With such a small anticipated rise, one would think that a solution that is not too visually or experientially intrusive could be delivered fairly inexpensively (relatively speaking). It seems like smart engineering to prepare for these changes that have been well underway for at least 100 years and are likely to continue unabated–until/unless Mother Nature decides otherwise.

  3. Sharyl and Full Measure Team,

    As the late Rush Limbaugh had correctly
    opined, years ago, re the “Manmade Global
    Warming” movement—that it is a front for
    imposing International Communism, in
    service to the U.N’s secret push for a
    borderless, totalitarian world.

    Here is what the military ELITE hide from
    you ( my term /explanation ) :

    “Cyclical Solar-Effected Global Climate Change.”

    Find and study : Precession of the Equinoxes’
    26,000-year cycle—and read just the last page
    of the late Robert Felix’s book :

    “Not by Fire but by Ice.”

    Best use the Commies’ ill-gotten funds and
    construct indoor hydroponic industries—or go
    hungry !


  4. Much of coastal flooding is caused by ground subsidence— allowing high tides to come in. In some areas it is because of pumping out drinking water.
    Stopping more building and not allowing Federal insurance to constantly reimburse people for building or rebuilding in hurricane prone coastal areas. The law ( 1967, I think) that allowed tax payers to subsidize the repair of waterfront homes should be repealed.

  5. Democrats have been running Charleston for 50yrs & have been promising (lying) to fix the flooding for ever. A wall isn’t going to do it, the flooding doesn’t come from the battery it comes from the crappy drainage of the city that back’s up during high tides & storms. Just like New Orleans it won’t be fixed they’ll just keep throwing money at it & promising to fix it.

  6. Thanks, Bob, for your interesting perspective. A Proverb says “the first one to speak seems correct until someone steps forward and cross-examines him.” I would like to hear more about the city’s drainage issues.

    Because I think man-made global warming and its subsequent sea-level rise is a hoax and a global make-work project for politically-connected cronies like Al Gore to get rich quick, I”m suspicious of any efforts to combat it.

    Not saying the sea level isn’t actually rising globally through natural and uncontrollable causes, but I do believe — a belief that is as valid as any “belief” in the new Woke religion — that “never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis9:11)

    Of couse, that belief is contrary to the estimable Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk, who claim Climate Change will doom us all by 2032 — unless we convert to Socialism!

  7. Good information, thanks. How about we let the people of Charleston fix their own problems. You know the old fashion way.

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