Sounding the alarm on development-related flooding, Johns Island groups unveil Lowcountry Flooding Declaration

They flood and they vote

About 100 people showed up to the Wesley United Methodist Church off River Road on Johns Island to hear from scientists and residents about the impacts of development-related flooding Monday night.

Technical maps were lined up by the door for perusal and a dinosaur-masked mannequin with a T-shirt reading “I flood and I vote” served as a stand-in for carbon-based lifeforms affected by rising waters. Elected officials were on hand, maybe to learn a little about how they can use their positions of power to help alleviate flooding in low-lying areas like Johns Island.

The Monday meeting at Wesley UMC is a standing appointment for the Concerned Citizens of Johns Island, an unlikely union of politically disparate residents Thomas Legare, a conservative Republican rabble-rouser, and Bill Saunders, the 84-year-old Charleston activist who helped African-American Charlestonians organize during the civil rights movement. The family of Esau Jenkins, the founder of the Progressive Club and Saunders’ mentor, also served as hosts.

The maps and the dino voter were the work of Phil Dustan, Ana Zimmerman, and the United Flooded States of America, a coalition of coastal residents united by the fact that they find themselves under water more often these days. Dustan, a CofC biologist and island resident, was slated to deliver a presentation on the geologic reasons why Johns Island has experienced more flooding with more development. Zimmerman, also a CofC professor, previously lost her home to flooding on James Island.

Beforehand, Dustan said he hoped to inspire “more people that want to see action rather than the status quo.” The professor has been on this campaign for a while now, “what I am going to talk about tonight is nothing new.” Nonetheless, Dustan says that when he talks with Charleston leaders about serious steps to address flooding in low, outlying areas, he says, “They all nod their heads and say, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and then they go off into the ether.”

Dustan’s main goals for Johns Island are simple enough: Ban “fill-and-build” developments, revisit old building permits, get people out of harm’s way, and build storm shelters.

Banning development that effectively clear cuts land is the bit that most leaders bristle at, Dustan says. “This isn’t rocket science. This could be done immediately … we can say ‘No more of this craziness,'” he says.

But taking another look at approved building projects that have sat idle for years is something that council can do, says Councilman Mike Seekings, who represents parts of downtown. “I think it’s legitimate, and I think we’ve got to do it,” Seekings says.

Referencing the recent Dutch Dialogues consultations in Charleston which sought ideas to address rising waters citywide, Seekings says, “If you’re really going to take seriously the people you pay to give us advice on how we go forward in the future, they being the [Dutch Dialogues] … at some point we’ve got to listen.” Seekings says he also wants to rezone some areas for higher-density development, which could in theory result in a smaller affected area.
But the big reveal came at the end of Dustan’s presentation with the unveiling of the Flooded States’ new Lowcountry Flooding Declaration, which lays out a list of grievances in true declaration style. “Thus far, our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated developments,” it reads, in part.

After Dustan’s presentation, Abe Jenkins (grandson of Esau), reminded folks why they were there and invited them to stay engaged and follow through on what they saw. “We need to talk to these candidates and if they’re not doing the right thing, we need to vote ’em out,” Jenkins said.

Printed on a giant banner and handed out as postcards, Bill Saunders was the first to sign his name.

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