With waters rising in Charleston, South Carolina we explore what, if any, breaking point there is for people living and working in this city. And we talk to city officials about making the big decisions of what, and what not, to build when trying to keep a flooding city livable.
Charleston is struggling to find its resilience, caught between a population boom in recent decades and stronger, more frequent hurricanes driven by climate change. As the city develops to make room for new residents, it eats into wetlands and creeks—nature’s defenses against nature’s extremes. Meanwhile, it’s trying out man-made strategies to bring down the water line in South Carolina’s low country.
BROKEN GROUND SEASON #3 EPISODE #2
By Paige Polk
AL GEORGE: Unfortunately, we filled in areas that were creek beds, marshlands. A lot of our flooding it’s not just about sea level rise, it is actually us not using smart land development practices from our inception.
MARK WILBERT: We’re never going to stop flooding. You can’t stop cloudbursts that come down and overwhelm systems over and over again
SIMONS YOUNG: I think Charleston has come under a little bit of heat from FEMA for maybe doing too much work that was too expensive in the flood zone.
JENI HELMLY: The stress level that nurses have to go through just in their everyday job, having the flooding on top of that is a huge stressor. It just seems like if there was a way to take away that stress, it would be wonderful.
HOST: With heavy rain events becoming more and more frequent in Charleston, South Carolina, a lot is on the line when it comes to the city’s way of life —from emergency worker schedules to billions of dollars in public funding. But at the root, it comes down to one main reality: more and more powerful storms due to climate change. Despite the storms, people are still flooding in Charleston. In fact, the population DOUBLED between 1970 and 2020, and it’s on track to keep getting bigger. And builders are responding accordingly, which poses a serious threat to the dwindling marshlands that naturally protect the area from devastating flooding. And forget about new buildings, most of Charleston is already built on areas that were once wetlands and creeks — and those places are dealing with flooding right now.
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HOST: I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain and this is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South and the people at the heart of them. In our last episode, we visited Norfolk, Virginia and heard how so-called “nuisance flooding” is making life difficult for residents.
MARQUITTA WHITE: By the time I wear heels or my regular shoes out here, I’m in the ground faster than when you at a funeral.
HOST: If you missed that episode, we hope you’ll go back and listen. In this episode, we head to Charleston, South Carolina —another coastal community struggling with flooding on sunny days. It’s gotten so bad that our Office Manager checks the tide charts every day for street flooding that happens right outside the front door. She even emails the staff in advance to make sure everyone has a plan for getting home safely. And it’s not just our Southern Environmental Law Center offices, this happens across the city in businesses and homes dealing with sea level rise.
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HOST: If you walk through downtown Charleston just North of the city’s historic colonial and gothic revival homes and beyond the quaint shops and restaurants, you’ll find one of the largest medical centers in the Southeast: the Medical University of South Carolina, or M-U-S-C for short. That’s where we’re meeting Jeni Helmly.
JENI HELMLY: I wanted to do it outside, because usually it’s beautiful out there. But it’s quite cold today. But my break room on the unit where I work — is that okay?
CLAUDINE & PAIGE POLK: Yeah. That’s great.
HOST: By the way, it was November when we recorded this interview. And the breakroom’s heating system was pretty loud.
JENI: We have teams, team A and team B, and we plan ahead for what we will do in the event that there’s a big storm or even a small flood. But as a nurse, you always are concerned if you’re in the hospital and there’s a storm outside, am I going to be able to get home? Is my car going to be okay?
HOST: Jeni Helmly is a pediatric nurse at the MUSC’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. She faces the same problems of high tides and flooding that most folks in the Charleston area do. But she has the added factor of working in one of the nation’s most important hospitals in her field. U.S. News & World Report ranked MUSC as one of the top hospitals in the country for pediatric cardiac care. Because the hospital’s built on filled marshland, it also sits right in the middle of a flood zone, which is even scarier when you consider that Charleston has experienced nearly a dozen tropical storms or hurricanes in the last five years. And the medical district doesn’t just flood from storms; it will even flood with moderate rain and a high tide. After Tropical Storm Irma in 2017 some surgeons had to use boats to get the hospital. Now, the medical center has a 2-ton military vehicle on demand for when it floods.
CLAUDINE: What’s the toughest storm that you’ve had to work through?
JENI: I’m not good at names of storms, but I believe it was Matthew and that was a couple — like three, four years ago maybe. And I was in the unit. You could hear the hurricane when it, I mean, you could hear it when it was outside.
REPORTER: Matthew turned deadly in North Carolina, killing at least 3 there. The storm also brought down part of a pier in Oak Island. Hours earlier, it made landfall north of Charleston, South Carolina, knocking out power to more than 400,000 in the process.
JENI: I feel like it’s an added stress, um, when you have so many other things. We’re the actual only pediatric cardiology surgical center in the state. You know, why do we have to have that stress on top of the stresses that we have on a normal everyday basis?
HOST: MUSC hospital first opened in 1955. A lot has changed since then. Including the fact that since 1950, sea level has risen 10 inches in Charleston.
JENI: I am originally from this area of the low country of South Carolina, but I spent five years in North Dakota and two years in Alaska.
CLAUDINE: Oh wow!
JENI: And so I came back here.
CLAUDINE: As somebody who grew up here, moved away and then came back, were you shocked at the flooding problems when you returned or did you expect it?
JENI: Yes. I was because I, um — and I can’t tell you exactly when the city did this great reorganization of downtown and the Septima Clark Parkway where they were going to — it was supposed to help with the flooding and they spent a lot of money that they advertised they were spending on making it better, so I think that everybody thought it was going to be better and then it just isn’t better.
HOST: The Septima Clark Parkway work Jeni is talking about is part of the Spring Fishburne Drainage project, which first got underway in 2011. The plan involves building massive tunnels under the city so that during storm events, water is directed into these tunnels, stored there, and then ultimately discharged to the rivers that surround Charleston.
REPORTER: It’s something most folks will never get to see, the tunnels that hopefully will tackle floodwaters in downtown Charleston. The underground tunnels are part of the Spring Fishburne drainage project for Charleston’s West side.
MAYOR JOHN TECKLENBURG: All of this – not hidden, but underground infrastructure will drain a 650-acre basin that includes the hospital district, that includes the Septima Clark Parkway, which is essential to our mobility and transportation of the low country.
HOST: That’s Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg talking about the project, which is expected to be completed in 2024. And its total cost estimate is $198 million dollars. Right now, they’re building shafts and digging deep tunnels 20 to 30 feet in diameter. Once it’s done, there will be a new pump station that should be able to drain 12,000 gallons per minute of flood water from the Charleston peninsula. This tunnel project is just one of many that the city’s resilience team is currently tackling, including the King-Huger intersection and Forest Acres drainage improvement projects. These are two parts of the city that are often underwater during nuisance flooding. Nuisance flooding is what it sounds like: a real pain to deal with. In coastal cities, you can drive down a road on a sunny day and find streets underwater. This is a BIG reason why there are also several drainage evaluation projects beyond the peninsula and throughout the city that are currently underway.
ANCHOR: Several streets downtown closed because of flooding on the peninsula from this morning’s high tides.
REPORTER: Fifteen, even twenty minutes ago, water was freely flowing across Lockwood Boulevard right where it turns into Broad Street. I saw a Charleston police cruiser going around this area, trying to drive through to see if it was safe to open back up and he actually turned around because the water is still a little too deep for your regular car.
HOST: These tunnel projects are a part of a huge backlog of public works that have struggled with funding, delays, and cost increases for years. The city says the current list, including Spring-Fishburne, would cost about $2 billion to complete. And to add to the challenge, most of these projects were originally conceived in the city’s 1984 drainage plan. That means these projects were meant to bring its stormwater system up to par with standards from the eighties — standards that were not designed to address larger storms or sea level rise. Now that Charleston is addressing climate change threats, we wanted to learn how the city is prioritizing so many big-budget, high-stakes flooding projects that could change the infrastructure of the city for generations. So my producer, Paige Polk, and I headed to City Hall.
CITY HALL REPRESENTATIVE: You meeting somebody?
CLAUDINE & PAIGE: Yes! We’re meeting Mark Wilbert.
MARK WILBERT: It’s really important to acknowledge that the problems of the past are there because we didn’t have the science we do today and the world is changing in an ever rapidly pace.
HOST: Mark Wilbert is Charleston’s FIRST Chief Resilience Officer.
MARK: In order for a city to truly be resilient, you know, the whole idea behind resilience is bouncing back after disasters. If you take resilience to the next level, it’s about making communities stronger, about making your infrastructure stronger, you build it for the future so that it’s better to adapt to the current environments.
HOST: Before Mark’s current city role, he was in emergency management and before that he was in the U.S. Coast Guard. He says that when they’re addressing plans, first they consider threats to life and property and next is the overall ability of the city to function.
MARK: So we will complete this year a vulnerability assessment, which — a vulnerability risk assessment — which will take a look at, um, the natural hazard threats and risks to the city and we’ll be able to quantify where those threats are, what the risks are, and that should help in decision making and a whole bunch of stuff.
HOST: But not all of the decisions made are about building infrastructure to deal with flooding. Some of the decisions are about whether to let development projects, like roads and buildings that are years in the making, even go forward.
CHRIS DESCHERER: I absolutely think there are really good developers in Charleston that want to build sustainable, safe, resilient projects. But we also continue to see some proposals that are troubling and would put new development in vulnerable areas.
HOST: The Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston Office Director Chris DeScherer keeps tabs on development going on in the city, especially projects that are harmful to wetlands.
CHRIS: For example, there’s one proposed development called Long Savannah in the West Ashley area of Charleston that would destroy more than 200 acres of wetlands and threaten to make flooding worse in that part of town. There’s another proposal called the Cainhoy Plantation that would also destroy about 200 acres of wetlands and put thousands of new homes in the floodplain. You know, wetlands store water and protect communities and people from flooding, so putting new development in these areas is a mistake.
HOST: We’ll talk more in detail about wetlands in a future episode, but here’s an important fact to know as we talk about what’s happening in Charleston. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration —better known as NOAA — says that peak floods can be reduced by up to 60% in watersheds that contain just 15% wetlands. So a little bit of wetlands can go a really long way.
MARK: It’s never going to be perfect, we’re never going to stop flooding. You can’t, you can’t stop cloudbursts that come down and overwhelm systems over and over again, but we can make them better, okay? We can make it so it’s manageable.
HOST: The real question is how do you make it manageable when people are also flooding into Charleston and developers are chomping at the bit to build housing to meet those demands? In the last ten years, Charleston’s population has grown by 20 percent — and that’s folks from all ages and backgrounds. I mean, even my dad and stepmother retired and moved to Charleston four years ago.
CLAUDINE: So I think about the very practical things that happen in a city, like a developer has had a building in the works or an idea for a building in the works for like 15 years and now they want to do something that we know is a bad idea, we know is building on marshland or we know that it’s in a flood zone. How does that transition work in a city that keeps your economy viable but also makes the real hard practical choices that are necessary.
MARK: I think the way you do that is, um, you have to work with the developers. You have to work with the home builders, um, because there’s probably a way to build in most of those places. It’s — you’re going to build differently, it’s not going to be the same, um, and so we have to look for those ways of building.
HOST: Just to be clear, filling wetlands, building in marshlands, and building in the floodplain have always been bad ideas. SELC has been fighting against this sort of thing since the organization was founded in 1986. And even if a city can raise funds and muster community support for massive investments in sea level rise infrastructure, that doesn’t necessarily mean developers will build smarter or with future flooding in mind. So how easy is it to get builders to change their ways?
KATIE MCKAIN: We’re a really strong property rights state in South Carolina and in the South in general and it’s really important to protect those rights for people while at the same time, you know, making sure we’re looking out for new development and making sure we’re developing in a very responsible and sustainable way.
HOST: That’s Katie McKain, the city’s Director of Sustainability. And when she says property rights she doesn’t just mean homeowners, she’s also referring to the property ownership rights of developers and land owners.
KATIE: It’s an interesting conversation, uh, because there are some tools that we’ve been looking into, what are some ways maybe, maybe if there’s a certain area that’s not most adequate to develop now that we have all this new data that we didn’t know back when it was originally zoned many years ago, maybe there’s ways that we can, uh, transfer development rights or, or use other tools that would help property owners not necessarily lose the value in their property, but reallocate the rights.
HOST: This city that has an immense flooding problem, has a tiny staff dedicated to tackling it. The city of Charleston’s resilience office has two employees, and you just met them both — Katie McKain and Mark Wilbert.
CLAUDINE: What is your, um, vision of, like, what this office needs to be in Charleston?
MARK: The office should be the place that, um, is a repository of expertise to deal with these issues. Um, I don’t think we’re the place where all of the work on this comes, because our city is super talented. It’s not just one office, but there does have to be one office that’s kind of coordinating and pulling it together and documenting it.
HOST: There is a growing understanding on how to mitigate flooding and that’s not limited to experts. The South Carolina Aquarium has a citizen scientist program that encourages people across the city to document flooding. And if you talk to any Charlestonian they have their own stories and theories and opinions about how to tackle this problem.
CLAUDINE: This is the downtown city market and, um, like all these tables here are typically vendors selling all kinds of different wares. This whole area will get flooded and I’m wondering if some of the people who work here may have had those experiences and can tell us about them.
HOST: Strolling through the market, we met John Nelson, a sweetgrass artisan from Mount Pleasant, a suburb in Charleston County. Sweetgrass baskets are unique to the low country culture and is a tradition that’s been around for 300 years when enslaved people brought the skill to South Carolina from Sierra Leone. There are plenty of tables with sweetgrass basket sellers, but Nelson says he’s the real deal.
JOHN NELSON: I’m an artist who uses the sweet grass basket to display my art. If you want a cheap basket, stop by Walmart. If you want history, you want art, come see me.
HOST: John’s business is selling baskets now, but he’s got a unique perspective on working in a market that floods often.
JOHN: I mean, being a former construction worker, that’s the first thing I realized when the first flood after they finished …
JOHN: … that the pumping system sits higher than the actual water itself. I mean you got, you got six inches of water before it kicks the pump on. By then, I’m already going home.
HOST: He’s talking about yet another city drainage plan — the Market Street Drainage Project. It’s a tunnel system from back in 2006 and currently in its final phase of construction.
JOHN: They won’t ever totally stop the flooding. I just didn’t like the fact that they spent millions of dollars on a drainage system they got for one of the engineers to figure out that the pump won’t work if the drain is sitting higher than what the actual water level is, and that’s the only gripe I got about downtown.
HOST: But the City of Charleston isn’t stopping at underground pumping systems. Like Norfolk, it’s also partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers on a $1.7 billion Coastal Storm Risk Management proposal.
CHRIS DESCHERER: So this is the Corps’ recommendation for protecting downtown from storm surge and flooding.
HOST: Here’s SELC’s Chris Descherer again.
CHRIS: We have a number of concerns about the proposal. The project could create a false sense of security in Charleston because there’s a real chance that the wall could actually be overtopped in a future storm. We think the proposal is also unnecessarily single minded in its approach. You know, the wall is intended to address storm surge but there are multiple sources of flooding including storms now that dump more rain, rising water with sea level rise that will increasingly enter the city’s drainage system which is very low lying. The wall may actually exacerbate flooding problems by creating a bathtub effect where water actually gets trapped inside the city, so it’s going to be really important to evaluate this wall carefully because it raises a host of questions.
HOST: Questions like how will we pay for it? How much will it help and for how long? And is the project’s main proposal — an 8-mile long wall around the city’s main peninsula — really the best solution? Because of course at some point, the wall’s gotta end. As proposed by the Army Corps right now, it ends on one side just before the community of Rosemont and on the other just before reaching the Bridgeview Village community. Rosemont is a predominately Black, moderate-income community with a high level of ownership. Bridgeview Village is a publically-funded, privately-owned low-income community. And it happens to be one of the few places left in Charleston that has low-income housing. So, why no protection for these communities?
CHRIS: That’s a really good question. The Corps study doesn’t provide a lot of detail for why these communities would not be protected by the proposed wall. And communities like Rosemont and Bridgeview have been shut out from decisions in the past on large scale infrastructure projects and we just can’t repeat those mistakes again.
CLAUDINE: What do you think the role is of the people living in Charleston and in the surrounding communities in the overall efforts of this Army Corps plan?
CHRIS: This is, in my mind, the most significant construction project potentially in the history of the city to deal with what’s really an existential problem. And it’s really — it’s going to be really important for people to weigh in and let their leaders know what they think.
HOST: The part of Charleston that is definitely getting protected by the Army Corp’s plan is known as the Battery. The Battery is at the tip of the peninsula and it’s the part of the city that has all those stately homes you see in ads for Charleston. So we headed a few blocks from SELC’s office to meet someone who knows a lot about these homes.
CLAUDINE: Hi, we’re here to see Simons Young.
RECEPTIONIST: Okay, come on in up the steps.
HOST: Simons Young is a local architect specializing in historic buildings in Charleston, many of which were built on fill or marshland, which is causing a serious water drainage issue.
SIMONS YOUNG: One of the first things that comes to mind is lifting the house. So you kind of assess, hey, can we do that? Is that a smart thing to do because it’s so expensive? Other things we look at are just like improving drainage, you know, rain gardens and that type of thing.
CLAUDINE: You mentioned, um, raising houses and I keep hearing about this and I, like, how is that even possible?
CLAUDINE: And I even think about some of those beautiful historic homes down on the battery, I mean, that seems like an impossibility, they’re enormous.
SIMONS: Yeah, it’s — it can all be done. It’s, you know, I think I had the same sort of thought as you initially, it’s like how in the world do you do that? But when you talk to the house lifters, I mean, I’ve talked in detail with a couple of them and one of them is like, well, we’ve moved a lighthouse we can, we can lift a house.
HOST: You can raise a modest home in Charleston for as little as $30,000, but get to a bigger home in the historic district, and you’re talking as much as $350,000. Most people dealing with constant flooding resort to less expensive, intermediate measures. Even Simons, who specializes in this kind of work, isn’t raising his own home.
SIMONS: I personally have pulled all of the, like, mechanical systems out from under my house and put them up in the attic. When we had our insurance appraisal after Matthew, all of our duct work had flooded and was shot, and the insurance company was willing to pay for the replacement under the house, um, but they wouldn’t pay for the replacement to put it in the, in the attic, which was substantially more. So we took the money that they would give us for their replacement under the house, and then we sort of shelled out of pocket to go in the attic with the duct work. So that was the first flood. And then we had two immediate floods right after.
CLAUDINE: If somebody doesn’t have the means to add to that, then maybe what they would have done is just put that ductwork right back in the place that it could also be vulnerable again.
SIMONS: Yes! Right. And then for two immediate years in a row, you would have had the same exact problem.
CLAUDINE: You, um, you mentioned you have children. Do you think — I mean, when you think about — your eyes just got big, like, oh my gosh, now I’m afraid.
CLAUDINE: If you think about, you know, 20, 30 years from now, do you see them living in Charleston?
SIMONS: Um … I don’t see why they wouldn’t. But I mean there are problems everywhere, right? Like you can say, well, I’m going to move to San Francisco. Well, they’ve got earthquakes, you know. Move to Mississippi, the river floods. You know, whatever, I think there’s problems everywhere. And so Charleston is — people, I think, they have asked me before, you know, how can you deal with the hurricanes? Well you can see them coming. You know, you can see them for five days or longer. And you just kinda know what you gotta do to get ready for them.
CLAUDINE: Is there a breaking point for you with the hurricanes?
SIMONS: Yeah, um … there’s not a breaking point for me with hurricanes. I mean, there never would be a time where I said I’m going to leave Charleston because there’s too many hurricanes. I might say I’m going to sell my house and move to higher ground because I’m getting too much flooding.
SIMONS: I feel like I know what’s safe and what’s not. I mean, you could always walk out in the wind and get a piece of slate to the head, I guess. But you could, you know, that could happen any day, I guess a brick could fall on your head.
HOST: Lots of folks we talked to are dealing with flooding in an up-close, personal way that seems really daunting on a daily basis, but they all seemed willing to stick it out in Charleston. The nurse Jeni Helmly we talked to earlier says even when storms hit she stays put.
JENI HELMLY: I lived through hurricane Hugo here back in the eighties, and that was a major hurricane, with major flooding and people without power for weeks at a time. And um, so you kind of compare everything to that.
CLAUDINE: Have you ever evacuated?
JENI: Um, no. Never. Just because that’s not how my family does. We’re all a low country family, we don’t know any different. So we do what we have to do. My father was a fireman and he was a first responder and he was always the one who was out in the middle of a hurricane, making sure everybody else was okay. So, um, that’s just kinda been my life.
CLAUDINE: But I guess there’s that fear of if another Hugo hits how much longer does that water last this time …
JENI: Oh, every time! Right. But every year, I think this year maybe I won’t be on team A, but then I think about my dad and it was just like in his blood. He enjoyed taking care of people. Well, I’m a nurse, I enjoy taking care of people too, but I can also take care of the other nurses that I work with who need to leave, who don’t have a choice, if I just stay here. So it’s just what I do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
HOST: Like many coastal cities around the country, Charleston is scrambling to make up for mistakes of the past, or suffer what are now immediate consequences. At the very least, cities are fully awake to this fact.
MARK WILBERT: What we shouldn’t be doing and what the rest of the world agrees with that we can’t be doing is we can’t be making those same mistakes going forward. We’re smarter now. The science is better.
HOST: The science IS better, we’ll hear how in our next Charleston episode. But the question remains, can we DO better? Can we build better? Or should we stop building all together? And what happens when things are too far gone? Is there a point at which it’s time to simply move on and what does that mean for homeowners? That’s the question coastal communities everywhere are grappling with.
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HOST: Next time on Broken Ground, we head back to Norfolk, Virginia to meet a woman whose retirement plans are being upended by sea level rise.
KAREN SPEIGHTS: I’m trying not to just start over. I’m 61 years old. My plan was, ‘I’ll just remodel it some so when I retire everything’s good and I can do what I want.’ That’s — that was the plan. And then the water came and it changes everything.
PAIGE POLK: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Paige Polk, Kelley Libby, Jennie Daley, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. Our theme music is by Eric Knutson. The archival audio clips you heard in this episode were found at CBS News, Live 5 WCSC News, and Charleston City Council. We hope you enjoyed listening, and don’t forget to rate & subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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