CHARLESTON, S.C. — Climate change is affecting our coastal cities, potentially flooding them in 50 years. That is why cities are now starting to take action to preserve their city and their historic buildings.
Charleston, South Carolina is at the forefront of this issue.
“For the first 20 years we lived here, there was no issue about flooding,” said Lee Kaplan, a resident of Charleston for 25 years. “Then, in the last five years or so, we have flooded our crawl space below the house has flooded four times.”
If you look around Charleston, you won’t be able to ignore the fact that this city is old, filled with buildings full of history and continuously under construction.
“Early on, people tended to settle along the coast and waterways,” said Erin Minnigan with the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Often, these buildings were built without regard for our modern-day challenges in terms of climate change. Now, we are quickly having to deal with how to adapt to these increasingly changing conditions with water.”
There are many cities across the country just like Charleston, battling rising sea levels, and of course, the hurricanes that flood areas and destroy buildings making them unlivable.
NASA studies show by 2050, sea level along U.S. coastlines could rise as much as 12 inches above today’s waterline. The studies project 10 to 14 inches on average for the East Coast, 14 to 18 inches for the Gulf Coast, and 4 to 8 inches for the West Coast.
As for the U.S., scientists said there are 15 cities that could be underwater by 2050 due to climate change, and Charleston is one of those cities.
“But the most extreme projections may be 5 feet just in 50 years, so by 2100, if we take no intervention, the peninsula could be inundated,” Minnigan said. “I will say that Charleston is on the forefront of pioneering adaptations for historic properties, and we are leading the way and other communities are looking to us on how to deal with rising waters.”
At the Preservation Society of Charleston, their number one issue is executing plans to save historic buildings from flooding.
“The best thing for our buildings are their continued use, and we were at a point where people were not able to live in them,” Minnigan said. “So, that was when we started the effort to create a policy for elevating historic buildings.”
One tactic that Charleston has implemented that other cities are applying is lifting historic buildings to prevent flood damage.
“We raised 6 feet; we were about 2 feet to begin with, so we’re standing at 8 feet,” Kaplan said. “We really couldn’t deal with the flooding anymore. We watched the water come up within 3 inches of coming inside the house. We couldn’t go anywhere in the fall. We were afraid we would be away, and the house would flood and one of our cars was completely flooded and totaled. We did not want to leave Charleston. We didn’t want to move off the peninsula, and so, our own option was to raise the house.”
While raising buildings in cities to combat flooding and climate change is a step in the right direction, it’s just one step to an over-arching solution.
“We don’t have time, so we’re really concerned, and we have become a little complacent because we are up high now,” Kaplan said. “I don’t worry about it, but I am worried about the greater Charleston area, and what a pity it would be because this is such a great city.”
The city of Charleston is building a higher sidewalk and wall for the rising sea level, and is currently developing plans to divert ocean water.
“The city has committed funds to a comprehensive city water plan,” Minnigan said. “So, this is going to study water issues from all angles, such as tidal flooding, sea level rise and groundwater intrusion to understand where the problems are.”