What Would Strategic Relocation from Charleston Look Like?

What Would Strategic Relocation from Charleston Look Like?
Written by Techbot

Think of Charleston as sitting in a basin of water. A bathtub. As long as the bathtub has 7 feet or less of water in it, life in the Holy City continues peacefully along. Tourists fly in and out and enjoy ample desserts and cocktails. Retirees flock to the area—33 new residents move there every day—and pay top dollar for homes that still cost less than those in Westchester County. All is superficially just fine, at least for a white person with means to buy a place to live, if you don’t mind sitting in traffic and you shut your eyes to the city’s ongoing racism. If you are Black and live in Charleston, the legacy of the city’s past lingers on in a hundred small ways, day after day, whatever the water level is.

But as soon as more than 7 feet of water is in the bathtub, the picture changes. Just half a foot more can make a major difference. As Steven Taylor of the National Weather Service puts it, “When we start to get close to 7 feet, all the drainage is full of sea water, and so any kind of rain has nowhere to go.” What will happen as the seas rise?

Charleston’s geography is that of a small New York City, with a central peninsula surrounded by outer boroughs. That peninsula has been the site of an important Atlantic port for nearly 350 years. About 40 percent of all the enslaved people who were forcibly brought to America first stepped ashore there, and after the importation of enslaved people was banned by the nation in 1808, Charleston was the center of the country’s domestic slave market. Today, its historic peninsula is a magnet for 7 million mostly white tourists a year. It is a place of crushing traffic, suburban sprawl, astounding economic inequality, and ongoing racial discrimination as well as touristic charm; it is, in fact, an extreme example of these urban characteristics. 

For all these reasons, the story of Charleston’s reaction to the rapidly increasing risks of sea level rise has global implications. Although Charleston’s role in American history is uniquely disturbing and its low-lying, sandy topography is particularly vulnerable to the ravages of sea level rise, its lack of planning for the involuntary displacement of its Black and low-income residents by rising sea levels is not unusual. Few global cities are doing enough to plan ahead for what is coming. What is special about Charleston is that its global reputation for charm and hospitality contrasts so vividly with the risks its poorest residents now face as the waters rise.

Imagine Charleston 25 years from now, in 2047 or so. By then, many increasingly powerful storms ever more heavily loaded with rain and wind will have ravaged the peninsula and its outlying areas over and over again. Rising seas and the moon wobble will combine to bring more water into the bathtub. There will be water pooling in backyards and roads because it is seeping upward, water spilling over soft creek banks into neighborhoods because the rivers are rising, and water sitting on streets that cannot drain effectively after storms because they sit too low for a gravity-driven system to work. No one knows exactly how much more water will be in the basin, but the region is so precarious already that it won’t take much to make things far worse than they already are.

The bathtub will likely be filling faster and faster as the years go by. By 2070, when a child born today is middle-aged, there is a substantial risk that there will be at least 4 more feet of water sloshing over Charleston. Maybe 6 feet. This would mean that most of the peninsula would be chronically inundated. Charleston is one of the communities most vulnerable to inundation in the US, up there with New Orleans and Cape Coral, Florida.

Given these real and growing risks to human flourishing, there is—just barely—time to be wiser. Looking at this future is like “looking down that railroad track and seeing that little light,” according to seasoned scientist Bob Perry. When he talks to skeptics, he says, “We all know that train is coming. By gosh, we got to get off the track.” There are many things Charleston could do to be prepared for the moment that train rolls through. “We’re leaving and we’re not coming back,” says Perry. He’s talking about Charleston.

Imagine if planning for a carefully staged departure from the coastal edge of the Charleston region were actually happening. There would be an announcement that over the next 10 years, say, a host of incentives allowing for a modest but fair return on their investments in their homes would encourage people to move. These announcements would be accompanied by frank, clear disclosures about the high-risk nature of these areas.

Right now, it is very difficult for ordinary consumers to get access to good data about the risk profile of particular residential properties. The Town of East Hampton, New York, issued a report in mid-2022 making clear that, absent extraordinary and wildly expensive protective efforts, by 2070 the town would be transformed “into a series of islands” due to rapidly rising sea levels. It is difficult to imagine Charleston publishing similar information.

Relocation packages would be created; a raft of government tax and credit levers would incentivize the construction of new homes in safer areas. These new residential districts would be dense, be well-served by transit, and include ample amounts of truly affordable houses. The land left behind once residents voluntarily left would be turned into protected marshland and parks, the very things that will help slow flooding further inland. It is very difficult to persuade anyone to leave their home if they believe that their land will be snapped up and developed for a profit the moment they depart and not left to be allowed to return to protective marshland.

Policymakers would also announce that after the first 10 years, the incentives would be lower, perhaps far lower, so as to encourage early decisionmaking. Coastal regions like Charleston (and many other places) would need to pay much more attention to actually engaging meaningfully with communities, including with faith-based groups and nonprofits—not just looking for buy-in to existing plans, or placating groups by featuring leading nonoppositional members of those communities. This planning will require genuine partnerships tasked with creating funded plans that acknowledge the equity and environmental justice issues implicated by relocation. So far, strategic relocation has been a piecemeal thing, carried out by small towns acting alone.

We urgently need to shift to strategic efforts that include sociocultural as well as physical factors and involve the whole country. As Professor A. R. Siders of the University of Delaware, a leading academic in the emerging field of strategic relocation, says, “A substantial amount of innovation and work—in both research and practice—will need to be done to make strategic [relocation] an efficient and equitable adaptation option at scale.” We need to pay attention to the social costs of displacement, and plan ahead to avoid cruelty and harm. What we really need is federal leadership and national planning—and funding—for withdrawal from coastal regions. Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations believes we need a national adaptation plan: “The plan on the national level would at a minimum help prioritize our federal investments. We’ll send signals to state, local governments and the private sector as to where we are going to make sure that we are building resilience and areas where maybe it isn’t cost-effective for the federal government to be involved any more.” We need, she says, to “measure our progress” as well. “Should we invest in beach renourishment, or do we build a seawall, or do we help these communities relocate altogether? Without a national adaptation plan, it’s very difficult to do that.”

Even if the nation isn’t yet thinking seriously about large-scale strategic withdrawal, some Charleston residents are. During a September 2019 public meeting, William Hamilton, executive director of Best Friends Lowcountry Transit, asked the key question: “Do we have places that we can put people where they can get to work and where they’ll be safe from hurricanes and flooding?” Mark Wilbert, at the time the city’s emergency manager, agreed with Hamilton that finding suitable places for people to live would be important. But he did not suggest that the city had a plan in mind or planned to develop one. Hamilton pressed on: “Everybody’s great on theory with affordable housing and transit, but we got to find a place to build it, a real place.” Mayor John Tecklenburg cut him off with a polite, low “Thank you,” and ended the Q&A session. Hamilton appears to be a known quantity at public meetings, and the mayor didn’t seem to want to hear more from him.

That exchange captured a central problem with Charleston’s ability to take on its flooding risks: The city’s leadership does not like the idea of radical changes, and likes the idea of radical changes prompted by its Black residents even less. That tendency comes from the top. Mayor Tecklenburg is an amiable man, but he is not one to want to rock the boat. As Charleston Activist Network director Mika Gadsden told the Charleston City Paper, “I just don’t have any faith in this current city council, this current mayor.”

As Michelle Mapp, a longtime community development advocate now working with the ACLU of South Carolina to help prevent eviction and displacement of low-income and Black households, puts it, “This is that cultural DNA part of Charleston. There’s a reluctance to focus on the negative. We always want to put a positive spin on things.” But if the city doesn’t address the threats facing it, she says, “All of the things that we see as being positives and being the accolades [of] this wonderful place to live are going to go away.”

Relocation will be an unquestionably difficult process. Not everyone will want to leave. Longtime residents may be highly suspicious of any buyout offer: Queen Quet, the queen of the Gullah Geechee people, said in 2018 that her people would resist efforts to buy them out. They have been betrayed far too many times by government. Until it was clear that all the very wealthy and overwhelmingly white denizens of Hilton Head, Fripp Island, Kiawah, Seabrook, Sullivan’s Island, and the Isle of Palms were also being bought out and told to move away and go inland, any approach by government aimed at encouraging the Gullah Geechee people to move would, she suspected, be nothing but a front put up by developers to build shiny huge houses on the land that her people left. “Because you are not going to approach the Gullah Geechees and tell us you’re doing something in our best interest,” she said to a white interviewer. “You’ve never worked in our interest. You’ve always worked in your own interests.”

Resistance to departures will be significant. And that’s why every level of government needs to hunt under all the policy couch cushions for every possible lever, incentive, and plan that could remove support for dangerous coastal living while building up that support equitably and fairly in safer places.

The kind of aggressive, coordinated planning needed in the Charleston region will require strong mayors who can collaborate and plan ahead. But the mayors of the largest cities in the region are all older white men who have been around forever or are the protégés of men who have been around forever, in the case of Tecklenburg. A kind of complacent cheerfulness has taken hold, at the same time that the context for the region, its tragic failures in housing, flood planning, and transit, is deteriorating rapidly.

Mapp imagines that intelligent, forward-looking planning would make the high land north of the peninsula the center of the region. The city is talking about a couple of billion dollars to address flooding on the peninsula, but no one is adding to that the money that will be needed to build higher, drier, denser, and cheaper places in Summerville. No one understands the scope of the long-term capital investment needed to change the status quo in Charleston when it comes to how people live and where they live, she thinks. Taking this step of moving people would be a fundamental shift for a lot of Charleston residents.

This will be particularly painful, she knows, for the Black communities in the region. “Many of the places that we hold dearest in the African American community are probably some of the places that are most environmentally vulnerable in terms of water. What happens to that history? Right now, all the discussions about housing and the future are so very reactive.”

As far as Mapp can tell, all the politicians in the region seem to say the same things and to be determined to keep the status quo in place. When candidates for office do emerge in the region, they tend to be backed by single-issue groups. The Coastal Conservation League will back someone who opposes new highways and is thinking about conservation, but that person will never mention housing and equity and transportation. No one seems to be thinking comprehensively, much less planning ahead. There is a big job ahead to persuade the three-county region of 800,000 people that it needs planning for future dense, affordable development on high, dry ground. The elders can argue all day long about one issue at a time, but where is the next generation of planners and zoning people, engineers and environmentalists who are really going to grapple with this mess?

To move the Charleston region into a new phase, to somehow keep its natural beauty protected while creating, in advance, welcoming places to which people can move, will require very strong leadership. It will require leaders who can withstand lawsuits by developers when they get kicked out of the floodplain, and who can make residents understand that everyone is in this dangerous boat together. Residents need to stop opposing the new, dense construction that will be necessary in the right places. And regional leaders will need to attract and wrangle billions of dollars to get this done. They will need to encourage the federal government to hugely expand its efforts to swiftly buy out individual coastal homeowners and assist renters in high-risk areas. Those buyouts and payments will avoid even greater flood insurance payouts and disaster relief costs in the future. All of these programs should give priority to low-income residents.

Once in a while, people with this broad view do show up. Then they are often run out of town. Vince Graham, a New Urbanist developer who grew up in Beaufort, was appointed chair of the state infrastructure bank in 2017. He started asking hard questions about whether it really made sense to extend the I-526 beltway around Charleston and down toward Kiawah rather than invest in affordable housing and everything else the region needed. “And they shut him down and they got him out of there,” Mapp remembers. “That’s what happens. Anyone who comes along and starts asking the hard questions, the common sense questions, the economic questions, very quickly, they are attacked. They are undermined. They are moved out of those positions.”

In mid-2022, activist and founder of the Charleston Activist Network Mika Gadsden stepped forward, saying she plans to run for mayor of Charleston in 2023. She tied the threads together on her livestream broadcast: “It’s not sustainable to live here,” she said. “It’s not sustainable to rent here.” Her own apartment in West Ashley had begun leaking dramatically, cascades of water falling from the ceiling. “And these issues are really what are driving me to run for mayor.” Gadsden’s presence in the race may shake things up. Or it may not, given the reigning complacency of the region.

Mapp continues to believe that Charleston has the potential to get this transition right, and more broadly that the city can represent what could be when it comes to race in America. She is not giving up. “If Charleston can change,” she says, “the South can change. If the South can change, America can change.”

The following excerpt is adapted from Chapter 10, “Muddling Through and Managed Retreat,” of Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm by Susan Crawford. Published by Pegasus Books April 2023. Used with permission.

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