Charleston, South Carolina is visited by millions of tourists each year. The town is a glimpse into the past, showcasing antebellum mansions, row houses, historic African American churches and scenic harbor views from a Civil War-era promenade.
Charleston is also visited more and more by water from rising seas and increasingly powerful storms. The city is essentially drowning in slow motion and may soon face an existential threat to its survival.
Charleston has a harbor and three rivers and water from all these sources leaks in at every bend and curve, fills streets, disrupts businesses, and rushes into homes during storms. Million-dollar antebellum mansions, built on spongy marsh and old tidal creeks, flood repeatedly.
City officials have endorsed a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to wall off the historic downtown with an 8-mile-long seawall that would cost nearly $2 billion. The proposed barricade is just one of many proposed projects to build seawalls, surge gates, levees, and other barriers to defend U.S. coastal cities in an era of rising seas and climate-fueled floods and storms. A proposed flood wall in Miami would cost federal taxpayers $8 billion.
Researchers generally agree that sea levels are likely to rise by at least 3 feet by the end of the century. Some experts believe the rise will be much greater. So, a key question is whether these barriers will actually keep out the water. Critics of many of the proposed solutions contend that they are doomed to fail.
Flooding has caused nearly $1 trillion worth of damage along the East and Gulf coasts over the past 40 years. And things are almost certain to get worse in Charleston and other coastal cities.
Fortress Charleston: Will Walling Off the City Hold Back the Waters?
Photo, posted October 7, 2015, courtesy of Jeff Turner via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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