Charleston weighs wall as seas rise and storms strengthen

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As high tide laps against the sea wall tourist walk down the Battery in Charleston, S.C. Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. Charleston has remained relatively unscathed this hurricane season. That means more time to mull a $1.75 billion proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers that features a sea wall along the city's peninsula to protect it from deadly storm surge during hurricanes. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Vickie Hicks, who weaves intricate sweetgrass baskets in Charleston, South Carolina's historic city market, remembers climbing onto the table at her grandmother’s booth downtown when the floodwaters rushed by.

Decades later, the seasoned seller of this art form passed down by descendants of West African slaves still works downtown, where merchants regularly set out sandbags and scrutinize daily weather forecasts. Hicks says the flooding’s only gotten worse.

“God’s taking back his land,” she said.

Now, the low-lying Atlantic seaport is considering its most drastic measure yet to protect the lives and livelihoods of residents like Hicks from the threats of climate-driven flooding: walling off its peninsula from the ocean.

Although residents recognize the need for action before Charleston is overwhelmed by the unfolding effects of climate change, many are not certain the wall will do enough to address flooding woes that go beyond storm surges. Some oppose walling off the city from its picturesque waterfront that helps draw millions of visitors each year. Others fear the wall will damage wetlands and wildlife, or that poor neighborhoods will be left out of flooding solutions.

Though Charleston has remained relatively unscathed this hurricane season, the city of 136,000 has seen higher tides and wetter, more frequent rainstorms in recent years with climate change.

In 2019, the downtown flooded a record 89 times according to the National Weather Service — mostly from high tides and wind pushing water inland. And the city could flood up to 180 times per year by 2045 according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There’s also the threat each year that hurricane-driven storm surge could inundate the city's peninsula, which is at the confluence of three rivers and mostly less than 20 feet (6.1 meters) above sea level.