Essential flooding solution

When Charleston’s preservation community gets on board with plans to dramatically alter historically significant buildings, there must be a very good reason.

It comes down to survival.

Sea levels are measurably rising. Flooding is occurring more frequently. And runaway climate change threatens to ramp up the destruction beyond what we’ve seen so far.

At least that’s the takeaway from a recently released report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a federal interagency body that researches climate change and other natural phenomena.

That report concludes that, “Global average sea level has risen by about 7-8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993 … sea levels are expected to continue to rise — by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1-4 feet by 2100.

“A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out.”

Here in Charleston, higher sea levels have manifested themselves in the form of at least three major flooding events in the past three years, including during Tropical Storm Irma this summer. Last year set a new record for tidal nuisance flooding — including on sunny days.

There is a lot of work the city can do to mitigate flooding. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects are already in the works. Billions more in infrastructure investments are still needed.

But the conversation must also involve how to adapt to flooding while doing our best to mitigate it. After all, not even the most sophisticated drainage system can handle a 10-foot storm surge or a storm like Hurricane Harvey that dropped about 5 feet of rain on Houston.

Earlier this month, city officials and preservation advocates met to discuss how to shift the mindset on protecting historic homes and buildings from higher seas.

For decades, the city Board of Architectural Review would encourage homeowners to all but ignore the potential for flooding — even asking them to seek variances to federal flood insurance rules to keep their properties intact.

No longer.

The conversation now involves balancing historic preservation with the real threats of climate change and sea level rise. Many homes and other properties will need to be raised by a few feet to keep them from flooding, for example.

And city officials — particularly with the BAR — need to be as supportive as possible, guiding homeowners with an established and clear set of best practices and ideal standards for minimizing the architectural impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

“Charleston is currently faced with two choices, neither of which is particularly appealing,” explained the Historic Charleston Foundation in a recent email alert. “Raise many of our historic structures or watch them be destroyed by repeat flooding. We’re losing something either way.”

It’s true that altering Charleston’s historic streetscapes involves a loss of part of the city’s traditional fabric. But with cooperation among architects, designers, homeowners, city officials and the preservation community, Charleston can gain resiliency and livability for decades, if not centuries, to come.

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