Flooding, and the creeping threat of sea level rise that makes it worse, took center stage at this year’s State of the City address, delivered by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg on Tues. Jan. 22.
Standing in front of residents and councilmembers at City Hall, Tecklenburg taught a 101 class on the history of drainage on the Charleston peninsula, the rapid and unchecked development of West Ashley, and the steps that it will take to “learn to live with water.”
The mayor briefly cited four critical challenges for the Holy City: flooding and drainage, traffic and transportation, affordable housing, and public safety. But the speech largely focused on something every Charlestonian can agree on — the existential threat of flooding that shuts down the streets every time it pours.
“It’s actually been documented over the last 100 years that the harbor of Charleston has risen over 18 inches,” Tecklenburg said. “Very reliably, the city believes in the next 50 years there will be a sea level rise of two to three feet. That’s what we’re planning for.”
Charleston first started taking steps to deal with drainage back in 1859 with a series of archway tunnels, the first of which started at Meeting Street and ended at White Point Garden.
“Over time, the peninsula developed into this grid of undersized and inefficient pipes and flooding features that don’t meet today’s requirements,” he said.
As part of his solutions, Tecklenburg touted the city’s three-month-old partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers, whose rubber stamp on flood mitigation projects will help the city secure federal funding to pay for them. The mayor also highlighted what he called the “Dutch Dialogues,” a back-and-forth that started with a Dutch delegation visiting Charleston last year and, most recently, ended in a discovery trip to the Netherlands by the mayor, city staff, and council members (Total cost to taxpayers: $19,000.)
He also praised the city’s soon-to-be-completed buyout of dozens of flood-prone West Ashley homes in the Shadowmoss neighborhood, drainage improvements at Spring and Fishburne streets meant to alleviate traffic-halting flooding on the Crosstown, and the creation of a new Stormwater Department, which the city announced back in December with a $2.4 million funding increase for flood mitigation.
Tecklenburg said he plans to present a revised Flooding and Sea Level Rise Strategy at the next City Council meeting on Feb. 12.
Several local organizations praised the mayor’s focus on flooding.
“We appreciate Mayor Tecklenburg’s thorough presentation during the State of the City on what is coming up this year in regards to the comprehensive plan, new department, public information sessions and outside expertise,” said Lowcountry Local First spokeswoman Jordan Amaker in a statement.
In November, 75 percent of the 500-strong local business group reported being impacted by severe weather and flooding last year. Forty-four percent of member businesses reported losing money over it.
“We know that these issues are not new to the Lowcountry and in fact have affected the area for centuries,” she said.
In response to the mayor’s address, Charleston Moves, a local bike, pedestrian, and transit advocacy group, used the opportunity to emphasize the need to move away from single-use vehicles.
“Flooding is a serious issue, and it’s no secret that transportation, land use, and flooding are inextricably linked,” said spokeswoman Katie Zimmerman in a statement. “Inappropriate zoning, outdated parking requirements for new development, and major investment in single-mode infrastructure is in direct opposition with the Mayor’s priority to mitigate flooding.”
If it appears that local officials will finally take action on flooding in Charleston in 2019, it seems that just as much momentum is behind education reform in Columbia.
After a generation of politicians talking about about education reform, in his State of the State address on Jan. 23, Gov. Henry McMaster seemed chiefly interested in clearing the deck for the legislature to make an earnest effort to improve S.C. schools.
McMaster, who has been in politics since the early 1990s, best framed the situation faced by lawmakers. Despite the state continuing to boast capital investments, McMaster said, “Being perceived as weak in any part of our state in education is not good. But being perceived as not committed to fixing it is disastrous.”
With an assist from Charleston’s Post and Courier, which laid bare South Carolina’s fundamentally broken education system in its “Minimally Adequate” series last year, it appears that Columbia has finally gotten the message that the state’s schools may actually need some help.
On Jan. 17, McMaster instructed state budget makers to review and suggest changes to South Carolina’s “outdated funding formula” and issue a report by May of this year. The governor, along with House Speaker Jay Lucas and Senate President Harvey Peeler, has promised the full support of his office and state education regulators once those proposals are submitted, saying, “Send me these reforms and I will sign them into law.”
McMaster’s laundry list of improvements include raising teacher pay as threats of walkouts mount, targeting investment to help lift up poorer rural areas where schools often lag behind, consolidating the patchwork of small school districts statewide, and placing a strong focus on higher education for non-four-year-degree programs.
Post-graduation readiness is one area where state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a Democrat from North Charleston, agrees with McMaster.
“My focus is preparing all children for all opportunities after high school … We’ve got to prepare children for the workforce, a 21st century workforce,” he said.
McMaster outlined recommendations for increasing funding for workforce training and funding collaborations with high schools and local businesses to put workers in the pipeline.
“Not only did he mention it,” Pendarvis said, referring to job training, “he talked about funding it. So, when he talks about those two things in conjunction, I’m a supporter.”
Pendarvis does wish that McMaster would go farther than his proposed 5 percent pay increase for teachers and, as part of reforms, cautioned against too much of a focus on school choice that may ignore underserved and low-income minority communities.