All Rise

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The effects of climate change on a heavily developed city imperil the future of Charleston, South Carolina. But instead of throwing up their hands and moving out, some residents are staying put. Here’s why they feel hopeful about the future.

A version of this story appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Uncommon Path

To live in Charleston is to live with water. Come to the Low Country, and you’ll see why: Creeks and tributaries meander through wetlands. Rivers bisect the city. Twice daily, they’re all flooded and then emptied by ocean tides—which partly explains why one of America’s fastest-growing cities is also a leading outdoor-recreation destination. Water is fun.

But all that water also creates havoc. Building so close to a water-swollen landscape is inviting trouble. “Charleston is heavily developed and growing,” says Sarah Watson, a coastal climate and resilience specialist for the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium and the Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments team. And now, climate change is creating trouble on a scale never before seen in the 237 years since the city was incorporated.

Watson says that when the city was built, no one imagined the sea would rise the way it has—by more than an inch per decade in the past century, nearly double the global average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Furthermore, much of the downtown lower peninsula is built on fill that is sinking, and many of the rivers and creeks are showing signs of erosion.

Flooding in Charleston, South Carolina

By the end of the century, experts say that on average Charleston may face wide-scale flooding every other day of the year. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mic Smith)

What’s more disturbing, Watson says, is how these dynamics will play out in coming decades. Precipitation is expected to increase. Researchers predict a sea-level rise of between 4 and 9 feet by 2100. Then there are high-tide flooding events—also known as sunny-day flooding. Fifty years ago, Charleston experienced about two per year; today, it sees more than 50 per year. By 2100, half of the year will feature a high-tide flood. City officials estimate each one costs more than $13 million in damage, lost tourism dollars and work stoppages.

Factor in worsening hurricanes, ocean acidification and pathogen-borne illnesses, and, to some, Charleston’s future may look pretty bleak. So why stay?

Here, five area residents share their thoughts. They span generations and social classes, political affiliations and value systems. What unites them is their love for this place—and their belief that they can be part of a solution.

The Pastor

Paul Rienzo, 60

Perched about 10 miles inland from Charleston Harbor, Crosstowne Church was flood-free for more than a decade. But in 2015, Hurricane Joaquin dumped 20 inches of rain, and more than 3 feet of water accumulated in the church. Similar flooding occurred after storms in 2016 and 2017. Along the way, Rienzo realized that dealing with what such storms have wrought is part of his calling. At first, his congregation spent weeks repairing the damage. In time, they just started to live with the mess, and that’s the way Rienzo likes it.

“We’ve all learned to embrace reclamation,” he says, pointing to tables fashioned out of water-stained doors. “It’s the living embodiment of redemption. Our church is proof that God has a place for watermarked people.”

What isn’t fine with Rienzo is why this flooding happens. He takes issue with Charleston’s building plan and flood-mitigation proposals, which, he says, are based on bad science and overly optimistic notions of how much precipitation this region can manage. The problem started after several major housing developments were built and bolstered by fill, followed by the opening of an elevated four-lane road outside the church. “We can’t deny the ways in which this is also a man-made problem,” he says in his flood-stained office.

That rainfall in 2015 broke every record for precipitation in Greater Charleston, and records continue to fall. An Environmental Protection Agency white paper reports that rain during powerful storms in this region has increased 27% in the past 50 years, a trend that scientists predict will continue as the planet warms. But more building is in the works, even as the city razed 32 chronically flooded townhouses as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded buyout program.

In response, Rienzo and his congregation pooled $60,000 to hire an independent hydrologist, Joshua Robinson, who confirmed the cause of the flooding. Then, working with Robinson and landscape engineers, they developed a plan of cascading inline storage ponds set in grassy berms. During flood events, the area would become a wetland. When not inundated, it would be a nature preserve with boardwalks for hiking and bird-watching stands. The cost is a fraction of what Charleston would have paid to acquire and raze the church—and the city council unanimously approved it.

“God tells us in Genesis that we are harmony bearers,” Rienzo says. “We were put here to properly steward the Earth.”

27 percent: The increase in Charleston rain during big storms in the past 50 years, according to the EPA

The Waterkeeper

Andrew Wunderley, Esq., 44

It’s a blustery morning and Wunderley is fueling up for his weekly testing. Those waters that rise around the city? They roll in carrying bacteria, and it’s Wunderley’s job as the Charleston Waterkeeper executive director to keep an eye on problematic organisms and speak for local waterways. His group is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international network of more than 300 groups dedicated to preserving waterways. Today, he and a volunteer will take about 15 samples from creeks, mooring fields and several terminals that make up the Port of Charleston.

As waters here warm because of climate change, they also lose their ability to maintain healthy oxygen levels—a critical factor for all aquatic life. Sometimes bacteria levels are too high for humans to safely tolerate. The chief culprits are sea-level rise and increased precipitation, combined with Charleston’s unique layout. Wunderley points to downtown Charleston, which at its highest point is less than 20 feet above sea level. Plum Island—the main sewage-treatment facility—sits at an elevation of about 7 feet. It doesn’t take much to inundate both.

“It’s hard for us as a community to accept that you can’t keep the water at bay,” he says. “For too many people here, sea-level rise is still just a vague existential threat.”

Wunderley says the next 100 years will challenge Charleston in ways no one can predict, but the community and sense of place are worth fighting for. “I’m motivated by a desire to lend a hand,” he says. “I want to be able to say I saw the problem and got off the couch and did something about it.”

600 million: Number of coastal urban residents worldwide living less than 33 feet above sea level, according to the United Nations

The Captain

David Richardson, 77

When Richardson was 15, he began captaining shrimp trawlers. He was 9 when he experienced his first major hurricane. It’s all part of growing up Gullah—descended from slaves brought here from West Africa. “My people have always been close to the waters here,” he says. “But those waters are changing.”

Richardson was raised on the docks of his father’s business, Backman Seafood, Inc. With each approaching storm, he’d help move the seven fishing vessels inland, where creeks and marshes would protect them. But the installation of private docks over the past two decades has made that impossible. The fleet gradually dwindled until, in 2016, Hurricane Matthew grounded the Backman Enterprise, the family’s last shrimping vessel, and took out its packinghouse and commercial dock. Then, a rare winter tornado ripped out part of the retail shop and dragged a 100-foot freestanding oyster cooler across the property.

But for Richardson, this land still holds value—it’s one of the only remaining ties to his cultural heritage. And it’s a heritage, he says, that is as political as it is personal.

“There is so much pressure among us Gullah folks to get rid of our land,” Richardson says. “We have encountered ingrained discrimination at every level, from the power Jim Crow laws had over our fisheries to indiscriminate development that unfairly relieved African Americans of our land.”

He’d like to see a truly sustainable business there: a fishing co-op, or his mother’s dream of a soul-food restaurant. He knows that will mean expensive new infrastructure. But it’s worth it, he says: “Once land has been relieved from us, opportunities for African Americans are gone forever.”

Flooding in Charleston, South Carolina

“The storms have always been a threat,” says boatman Richardson. “But it’s gotten a lot worse.” (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mic Smith)

The Farmer

Caitlyn Mayer, 29

Mayer, her husband, Peter Bierce, and his twin brother, Thomas, are the joint owners and operators of Charleston Oyster Farm, the first of its kind in the city’s watershed. Mayer has seen the disturbing results of the Charleston Waterkeeper sampling tests, which show raised bacteria in these troubled waters. She knows that climate change is only going to make those results more intractable.

She’s also really confident that one solution is oysters, which sequester carbon—meaning they remove carbon from the ocean and atmosphere to make their shells. They also naturally recycle, creating their new shells from old ones. Each oyster can filter upward of 50 gallons of water a day, fostering the growth of phytoplankton and zooplankton for a richer growing environment. Even farmed oyster cages serve as a nursery for other species.

Oysters are also more sustainable than many forms of animal protein, such as beef, the development of which contributes to greenhouse gases. “Oysters are going to save the world,” Mayer says. “We’re fortunate enough to get to experience them.”

The Activist

Ainsley Payne, 10

Payne would much rather be surfing—now in fifth grade, she’s a two-time regional medal winner—but lately, she hasn’t had much time for shredding. The reasons are all around her: almost a mile of beachfront erosion on her native Folly Beach. Her streets see chronic flooding; the community librarians have removed books from the bottom rows of their stacks to keep them dry.

So Payne forgoes surf time for advocacy playdates. At school, she collects petition signatures, which she sends to Sen. Lindsey Graham in support of the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act. (She says she could have gotten more signatures, but the kindergartners take up so much space with their neophyte handwriting.) And then there
are the speeches she gives and the rallies she organizes for climate change advocacy and against overdevelopment.

“Some people still don’t think global warming is real, but 90% of the kids in my class are behind me on this,” Payne says. “If just 50% of adults were with us, we could stop this chaos once and for all.”


Urban Action

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, which account for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To mitigate this, some cities are developing innovative solutions. Here’s a sampling.

London: Drivers of cars built before 2006 now pay about $16 to enter the Ultra Low Emission Zone along with the existing almost $15 congestion charge. The larger plan is to accelerate a shift to low- and zero-emissions vehicles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New York: The city hopes to cut greenhouse gas emissions by setting caps on large buildings. The legislation—part of a group of bills in the Climate Mobilization Act—passed this past spring, and the city’s largest structures will have to reduce their pollution or pay a steep fine.

Houston: The Sunnyside neighborhood is developing an urban solar farm on an abandoned 240-acre hazardous landfill. It will generate electricity to supply 12,000 homes with power and will also include an agriculture hub (housing aquaponics and beekeeping, among other endeavors), recreational paths and more.

Paris: The city’s first zero-carbon neighborhood, Porte de Montreuil, aims to reduce harmful emissions by 85%. Features include on-site geothermal energy production, locally and bio-sourced construction materials and spaces that can convert from commercial to residential.

Chicago: The East Garfield Park area is morphing from a neglected neighborhood into a net-zero carbon and net-zero energy community that will process 100% of its stormwater and generate its own power on-site. Aptly called Garfield Green, the new residential area will employ Passive House building standards, focusing on green spaces, biodiversity and bioclimatic design.