Any questions about the peninsula's penchant for flooding can be quickly answered with an 18th century map. Some main roads today were once large stretches of marsh and some of the shortcuts through town were creeks that cut through the peninsula.
Charleston has been flooding for more than 170 years says Laura Cabiness, director of the city's stormwater program. And these days the main problem areas are those old creek beds that were filled in so people could fill out the peninsula.
That's the oldest problem, but Cabiness notes that's not the only problem. Much of the stormwater system running under the city was built in the late 1800s, some of it was left incomplete, and what's there can't handle storm runoff in the 21st century.
"They're not big enough to handle the amount of stormwater," Cabiness says.
What you're left with is what any Charlestonian that has tried to get from point A to point B soon after a rain storm can tell you: It ain't happening through these streets.
Recognizing improvements needed to be made, the city charted out all the problem areas throughout the city in a 1984 drainage and floodplain management map and many of the areas identified can be easily spotted today. It's good to recognize a problem, but the price tag 20 years ago to fix all the problems was $132 million and progress on a cost that big, not surprisingly, has been slow, with more than 38 percent of the work either completed or under way. With an annual maintenance budget of about $3.5 million, the city has spent about $26 million, including grants and private funds, on about 28 projects.
One of the more high-profile improvements was the $16 million Concord Street pump station built in 2001 that takes care of a few problem spots, most notably the intersection of East Bay and Calhoun, and Meeting Street between Mary and John streets. A recent storm proved the pump station is not infallible. Part of the problem has to do with the flow of water through the pump that is set to move only as fast as the current in the river. The other problem is debris that inevitably clogs up drainage pipes.
Other problem areas have seen improvements, including the intersection of Broad and Lockwood, which has been paved over to avoid tidal flooding, but Cabiness says the intersection will likely sink again and require another coat of asphalt.
Major projects in development include the rehab of another pump station on Courtenay Street that will be largely funded by the Medical University of South Carolina since most of the area it will service will be on the campus.
The city is also planning design and drainage improvements in the Spring and Fishburne drainage basins. It will be the city's most ambitious stormwater project, Cabiness says, comprising approximately 20 percent of the peninsula. The city is also spending $1.5 million to rehabilitate old brick storm drains in portions of Meeting Street and East Bay.
Recognizing that long-term solutions are still in the distance for many areas, the city is fine-tuning its short term solutions. When Hurricane Ernesto passed by in late August, Cabiness coordinated individual public works crews to focus on specific areas prone to flooding. In the past the crews would circle the peninsula looking for trouble spots, but the city has found the new targeting method is more efficient, she says.
For those who have to trudge through those downtown streets, it's best to avoid areas where you can't tell how deep the water is. Though it may sound counter-productive, driving through large puddles slowly is recommended. Fast cars splash water up into the engine and risk stalling the car. Avoid those areas that are likely inundated with salt water because it's more corrosive on your engine.
Considering we're more likely to pave over the Cooper River then revert those marshlands and creekbeds back to their water-flowing best, keep the galoshes, an umbrella, and this map handy for the next hard rain.