Sea level rise is already changing our lives 

Ready or Not

Things are moving fast in the real estate industry, the urban planning profession, and other businesses as the world braces for the epochal sea level rise which is already upon us. "Across the 17 largest coastal metropolitan areas in the U.S., more than $1 trillion dollars in assets were exposed to potential losses to catastrophic 100-year floods, as of 2005," states an Oct. 22 report from the real estate firm CBRE.

The report goes on to list those 17 cities (Charleston was not among them), along with their real estate vulnerabilities. Miami was at the top of the list, with more than $366 billion in land and structures in harm's way.

How much real estate does the Charleston area have at risk to rising seas? Not as much as Miami or the other cities in the CBRE report, but many billions, to say nothing of a great deal of history and culture, and the lives and fortunes of a lot of people.

The evidence of a changing world is not hard to see if you live in Charleston or one of South Carolina's other coastal communities. Only last week we had another round of downtown tidal flooding, the third in less than two months. We have seen portions of East Bay Street, Lockwood Boulevard, and Fishburn and Ashley streets, plus various intersections in the Charlestowne neighborhood flooded and closed to traffic. Add to this list Harbor View Road on James Island, Main Road on Johns Island, and Windemere Street in West Ashley and you get the picture of a city in crisis. And this is not to mention the miles of beachfront houses, condos, and hotels along the Carolina coast. And it's getting worse. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reports that nuisance flooding in the metro area has increased fourfold since the 1960s; Charleston was among 10 U.S. cities with the largest increases in nuisance flooding since 1960.

Citing the NOAA report, The Post and Courier says Charleston averaged fewer than five nuisance flooding days annually, between 1957 and 1963; we averaged more than 23 flood days between 2007 and 2013. We will have at least 30 days of "sunny day" flooding annually by 2020.

How will all this play out in Charleston, to say nothing of other coastal cities around the world? Will there be a moment, a tipping point, when residents say, 'Oh, shit! It's really happening," and real estate prices will plummet, whole sections of our town will be abandoned to squatters and vagrants who don't mind slogging through a foot or two of water to live in some of the once-grandest houses on the coast?

Or will we gradually adapt in mind and habit and with technology to the more frequent and more widespread flooding on our streets? Will we grumble about tidal flooding the way we grumble about grid-locked traffic and poor cable service, but manage to get on with our lives?

We find ourselves in this situation because powerful corporate, political, and media interests have fought any change that would threaten the fossil fuel industry. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and casual observation, the forces of climate change denial have deadlocked action in this country.

But there is still reason for hope. Right now representatives from 200 nations are meeting in Paris to work out an agreement to control greenhouse gases. They are not doing this to annoy Rush Limbaugh. CBRE did not release its alarming report on the economic consequences of rising oceans to give Bill O'Reilly something else to snarl about. The world knows what is going on, even if the Republican Party and its low-information voters do not.

The good news in Charleston is that developers have not gotten cold feet on our future. There is nearly a billion dollars worth of new development and renovation taking place on the peninsula right now, and there does not seem to be any end in sight.

As for myself, I have staked my claim in the Holy City. I have stated for years that I intend to spend the rest of my life in Charleston, the greatest town I've ever known. Three years ago I bought a small house in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood. I am invested here and will be here stacking sand bags with the best of them, if it comes to that. I just wish we had started planning and talking rationally about climate change decades ago.

Will Moredock is the author of Banana Republic Revisited: 75 Years of Madness, Mayhem and Minigolf in Myrtle Beach.


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