By Elizabeth Fly, Ph.D., South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium
Edited by Joey Holleman and Susan Ferris Hill
Mark Wilbert watched on camera from the City of Charleston’s Emergency Operations Center as water rose up to a police barrier on one of the streets closed during the historic flooding event in October 2015.
As Charleston’s director of emergency management, Wilbert coordinates the city’s response to flooding during rain and high tide events. “It’s happening more and more,” Wilbert says. “People around here are really starting to realize that we’re seeing higher tides and more heavy rains. This flooding isn’t just a nuisance anymore; it’s impacting their quality of life.”
He’s right. Flooding is happening more frequently in Charleston. Based on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide gauge in the Charleston harbor, tidal flooding occurred an average of two times per year in the 1970s but was up to 11 times per year in the early 2010s. By 2045, Charleston is projected to face nearly 180 annual tidal floods. And the devastation caused by the October 2015 extreme rainfall and flood event, which included tidal flooding, was a wake-up call to many.
From October 2-5, 2015, the greater Charleston area received 10.94 - 26.88 inches of rain, depending on the location. This historic rainfall led to flash flooding, significant damage and rescues by emergency personnel. Scenes like this one in Shadowmoss, a subdivision in West Ashley, were commonplace. Image: Kyle Buck
This flooding is not just isolated to the city of Charleston but impacts a large portion of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, meaning efforts to increase resilience need to be regional. Wilbert and city colleagues have joined with organizations and agencies throughout the region, including the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, to form a public/private partnership called the Charleston Resilience Network (CRN). Other partners in the CRN include Charleston County, Charleston Water System, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, College of Charleston and SCANA Corp. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection and NOAA serve in advisory roles.
Although the network is in its infancy, one of its biggest successes has been a NOAA Regional Coastal Resilience Grant awarded to the Consortium on behalf of the CRN. The grant will help community leaders plan for and adapt to the area’s increasing flood challenges. By leveraging the capabilities of CRN members and partners, this project will advance the collaborative approach necessary to understand vulnerabilities, educate stakeholders and foster a unified strategy. The goal will be more effective infrastructure and land use planning, as well as water management practices that minimize risks from chronic and episodic flooding events.
High tide combined with rain regularly closes streets in peninsular Charleston, S.C. Image: Susan Ferris Hill, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium
"[This project] will give us more accurate data to predict how vulnerable we are and what the consequences could be,” Wilbert says. “That enables us going forward to come up with better mitigation procedures based on better science.”
The Consortium, with its wide network of partnerships and expertise throughout the region, was a logical place to house many of the CRN’s efforts, including the NOAA resilience grant.
“The close collaboration and expert advice provided by the Consortium regarding the threats sea level rise poses to our city and citizens is key to helping us make the best decisions and recommendations in the future,” Wilbert says. “As the city’s emergency manager, having a partner with the expertise and support network the Consortium provides helps us to ensure that disaster planning, now and into the future, is made using the best science and practical advice for success.”