File photo Dustin Waters

Groundswell Charleston, a grassroots advocacy group that educates the public on ways to stem flooding, has invited three experts to a Nov. 14 forum on Charleston’s effort to adapt to rising sea levels.

Dale Morris, the city’s chief resilience officer, Stephen O’Connell, project manager for the city’s comprehensive integrated water plan, and Sarai Carter, a specialist in nature and nature-based flooding solutions, will join a panel and then answer questions at 5 p.m. Nov. 14, at the Charleston County Main Library on Calhoun Street.

Groundswell Charleston is demanding that city, county and state governments direct more resources to manage rising waters that threaten Charleston, according to the group’s website. It also serves as a clearinghouse of practical information and helps its members cope with the effects and anxiety of flooding.

The group emerged in 2017 following Hurricane Irma,  the third major flooding event in as many years, said Susan Lyons, Groundswell’s chairman who lives on the city’s west side. Small meetings in the dining room of Lyons’ home led to larger gatherings at a church and the county library. Public meetings ended with the start of the pandemic in March 2020. 

“We were having periodic meetings for residents to learn more about what they can do to protect themselves and their homes and how we could influence officials to take the flooding problem seriously,” she said.

The Nov. 14 meeting, she said, “is our comeback.” Residential and commercial development and the city’s progress to address flooding convinced the group it needed to update the public on the flooding issue, she said. “We also want to continue to be a voice in the decisions that are made,” she said.

Charleston and other coastal cities can cope with flooding by adapting and taking long-term measures to reduce the causes of climate change that lead to sea level rise. The city’s Flooding and Sea Level Rise Strategy includes ongoing and proposed projects to build a peninsula sea wall, upgrade the storm water drainage system and update zoning regulations to limit development in low-lying areas. The plan also includes projects to reduce flooding in West Ashley and on Johns, James and Daniel islands

The right approach, ally says

As the city grapples with the reality of flooding, Groundswell Charleston is taking the right approach to incorporate in the public meeting a discussion on green technology and green space to manage flooding, said Dr. Jen Wright, a College of Charleston professor of psychology and co-director of the Charleston Climate Coalition. Wright said incorporating green spaces will allow residents to live with higher levels of water. “The city will be more attractive and the more we can do that the better,” she said.

Morris offered another way to achieve the benefits of large green spaces in a city with limited options. Backyard and courtyard with lawns, rain gardens and green spaces across the city present ways to create exposed ground to absorb excessive rainfall, he said. “It will take awhile, but if it is done parcel by parcel that will make a difference,” he said.

The Lowcountry has been lacking in developing solutions to climate change, Wright said. “That is why the Charleston Climate Coalition was started,” she said. “We need to be more aggressive and more proactive in trying to mitigate climate change — for example, by having every municipality pass a Climate Action Plan.” Charleston City Council recently approved such a plan, but has yet to fully fund it, she said.

Morris said, “Until we have alternative sources of energy we have to manage” the effects of climate change. “If we can reduce carbon in the atmosphere and stop it [faster] we would have done a good thing,” he said. “We do request funding for projects, and we also have to manage the projects” with a limited staff. City Council is expected to approve an additional grant writer position so the city can apply for competitive federal grants to support programs in the city’s climate action plan.

The city will have to spend more money to mitigate climate change and severe weather and build and maintain drainage systems and impose changes on how land is used, he said. “If we want to keep our feet dry, we’ll have to spend the resources or move,” he said. 

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