A gathering of about 80 Charleston residents, mostly from flood-prone West Ashley neighborhoods, attended a presentation at Bees Landing Recreation Center Thursday. State government representatives explained the details of federal flooding mitigation programs they administer, but those in attendance wanted to hear about the City of Charleston’s future plans to repair the failed drainage system. Charleston’s Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert, who has been on the job for a little more than a year, offered no solutions. He said, “This is a problem which has been building up for many years. We’re actively looking for every revenue source we can find to fix the problem.”
Engineering firm Weston and Sampson conducted a five-month Church Creek Drainage Basin Study, which proposed specific drainage infrastructure solutions with an estimated price tag of $44 Million. The final report, which involved 14 public meetings, field surveys, aerial photography and computer modeling, has not been released to the public yet. Charleston public works director Laura Cabiness indicated that the report should be published by the end of the month. Charleston’s $212 Million 2008 budget includes no spending for the Church Creek study’s recommendations. It did include about $6 Million to fund a bicycle path downtown.
Representatives from the South Carolina departments of natural resources and emergency management discussed the various federal flooding mitigation programs. Some in attendance have experienced flooding damage four times since 2015 and wanted to learn about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) home buy-back program. Jessica Artz, a flood mitigation specialist with the SC Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the program only has $90 Million allocated nationwide. Millions of Americans experienced flooding in 2017 during hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The City of Charleston will have to apply for the mitigation grants to DNR in March, which will then send the application to FEMA. A Charleston grant application following Hurricane Matthew in 2016 was denied. The program also reimburses qualified homeowners to elevate their homes.
Allen Fountain with the SC Emergency Management Division discussed the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant program, which requires a Presidential Disaster Declaration for South Carolina to make residents eligible. The program was used to authorize the acquisition of 48 homes in Shadowmoss in the aftermath of the 2015 flooding events. Residents in the affected properties have been told they will receive the buy-outs, based on the pre-flooding assessed value of their homes by late August or early September. The vacant properties will then be deeded as open space in perpetuity, and Charleston could convert the open space to a retention pond. Homeowners were encouraged to contact Charleston flood plain manager Van Hewitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-579-7519 to inquire about their flood insurance status, property elevation and grant eligibility.
The tone of the meeting was very tense. Homeowners expressed frustration over the practice of clear-cutting trees in wetlands areas, filling them in with impermeable clay and paving them, which increases stormwater runoff. There were also concerns expressed about elevating the soil at construction sites, causing runoff to impact existing neighborhoods, and the health programs associated with post-flooding mold. Some in attendance were encouraging residents to write letters calling for a public hearing with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which grants wetlands permits. Letters must addressed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Division, 69 Hagood Avenue, Charleston, SC 29403. 35 letters are needed to trigger a public hearing.
Rising Tide has been documenting drainage problems in West Ashley since 2015. There were two major flooding events in 2015 in what is now known as the “1000-year Flood”. Thousands of homeowners sustained flooding damage during that time. The City of Charleston’s attitude at the time was “there is nothing we can do” to protect homeowners. The Weston and Sampson Church Creek Drainage Basin Study shows us that there is a lot we can do, including installing a pumping station and tidal gates and digging a large retention pond. It is now time for action!
John Steinberger is the editor-in-chief of LowcountrySource.com. To contact him, email John@LowcountrySource.com.