Charleston, S.C.: A rare Southern city preparing for climate change

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Charleston, S.C. is a place near and dear to my heart. As a native South Carolinian, I've spent a lot of my life either living in or visiting the city. Both of my children were born there. It's a place that is rich with history and beauty, a dark past and a hopeful future. It's a city that you can smell and almost taste as you get close -- a mix of salt water and pluff mud.

It's that rich history and abundant salt water that has caused the city leaders to have to face some stark realities. Increasing flooding from rising tides and stronger storms caused by climate change are taking a toll on the city and a lot of the city building that was done in the past -- filling in marshes and creeks to expand buildable land -- has made the problem even worse because the water has nowhere to go except the streets.

While many Southern cities are still sitting on their hands when it comes to climate change, Charleston doesn't have that option, so city officials have committed $250 million -- over one and a half times the annual city budget -- to building deep underground tunnels and pump stations to send water back into the ocean.

This plan comes not a minute too soon because in this year alone, flooding has made downtown streets unpassable at least six times and, most notably, there was the so-called 1,000-year-storm that dumped 16 inches of rain in early October and closed down the city for days. Storms like that are expected to become more frequent in coming years.

Sea level rise has also been unescapable. In the past few years, "nuisance flooding," or that flooding that happens on sunny days from an especially high tide has occurred an average of 23 times a year. That's about four times as often as it happened 50 years ago. Some predictions say the South Carolina coast will see a foot of sea level rise by mid-century.

“There are three basic approaches to sea level rise,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior analyst for the Climate & Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to the Associated Press. “You can defend against the water with walls to keep it out. You accommodate the water by living with it and elevating buildings and creating channels. Or you retreat.”

Charleston is going with the first two options. Drainage tunnels that have been dug far below the city, some dating to the 1980s, will be expanded and will connect to pump stations that will send water back out to the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, which run on either side of the city peninsula, out to the ocean. More drainage tunnels will be also be dug along the main coastal highway that stretches north-south. The city's mayor, Joe Riley, knows this won't be enough though.

More drainage infrastructure and even walls along waterfront streets will most likely be next and the future will determine how much more work will need to be done.

“As each year’s worth of data comes in, it gives you better guidance on what long-range sea level rise is and it’s prudent to plan for intermediate steps,” Riley said.

Charleston joins just a handful of other East Coast cities that are putting major investments toward protecting themselves from the effects of climate change: New York City, Nofolk, Va. and Miami.

The commitment is important not just because it will help the city prevent major damage from flooding, but because it also means that city leaders are facing facts, accepting the truth about climate change and working toward preparing for it. In the South, where governments are slow to accept climate change, having a major city do just that could make a big impact.

When Southern cities like Charleston begin both monitoring and feeling the effects of climate change, action to prevent climate change from becoming any worse can follow.

Charleston, S.C.: A rare Southern city preparing for climate change
The coastal city has been coping with increasing flooding from rising sea levels and stronger storms. Its leaders are taking action.

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