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 ta-payer 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.