An annual federal flooding report found Charleston's high-tide flooding is increasing at an alarming rate. The report comes as the city prepares for its decennial comprehensive plan, which is being billed as its first development and priority blueprint with climate change as the central focus.
"The report is very clear: Charleston is in trouble," Coastal Conservation League's Betsy La Force told Statehouse Report, the City Paper's sister publication. "If we look at the data and continue to ignore it the issue will only get worse. It's scientific. It's not political. It proves to the public and political leaders that climate change impacts are happening now … We have to be realistic and plan accordingly."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report included high-tide flooding (HTF) data from Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Charleston was mentioned in graphs and mentioned 21 times in the report.
Charleston saw 13 HTF events in 2019 but is projected to see only four to seven flooding events this year. Myrtle Beach's Springmaid Pier had 11 flooding events in 2019 but is projected to see only two to six this year. Charleston could experience up to 90 high-tide flooding events by 2050, the report said. Myrtle Beach could see up to 75.
The increase in high-tide flooding along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts since 2000 has been "extraordinary," according to the report, which found that the frequency of flooding in some cities growing five-fold during that time. Charleston is among those cities with a 500 percent increase in HTF in that time.
Charleston is more susceptible to anthropogenic climate change than Myrtle Beach because of its unique positioning along the coast, La Force said. Like other coastal cities dealing with an increase in flooding events, Charleston is surrounded by water and marshways with no buffering beaches, like the Grand Strand, she said.
"In order to be resilient in the face of sea level rise and an uncertain future we have to make bold choices in development," La Force said. "There's still lots of growth coming to Charleston. We have to think about how we are going to manage growth without exacerbating flooding. The report is another reason to implement the studies and plans we've been doing for decades. At this point it's undeniable."
She said much of that can be addressed in the ongoing comprehensive plan the city is discussing now.
Charleston Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said the city has retained consultants from the city's Dutch Dialogues and has already begun discussions with residents, which are continuing online.
"For the first time ever, we are focusing on our comprehensive planning efforts on climate change, sea-level rise and flooding," Lindsey said. "It's framing our whole discussion … It's clear that if our city is going to prosper and thrive in the future, we are going to have to address this issue now."
Lindsey said consultants have begun analyzing flooding issues so that data can be produced for decisions in the planning process. Meanwhile, the department is working with communities to hear from residents and gather concerns.
High-tide flooding affects many communities in coastal cities, but black neighborhoods are usually most at risk, according to national analyses. The comprehensive plan will also address how climate change has negatively impacted historically black neighborhoods amid the city's rapid gentrification and development's impact. Lindsey said a consultant has been reviewing that issue, which he called a priority.