Tuesday, September 19, 2017 Blog · News

Irma odds and ends. The fallout. The response. Can I talk to you about insurance? Snow leopards on the rise.

by Dana Beach

There is a party
Everyone is there
Everyone will leave
At exactly the same time

When this party’s over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same

“Heaven” by David Byrne


Irma certainly wasn’t a party, and it wasn’t EXACTLY the same as Matthew or the October 2015 “rain bomb.”  But the hurricane, (which was “just” a tropical storm in South Carolina), left us with a familiar, sinking feeling – for the third time in three years.  In Charleston, mud covered many streets south of Broad, pieces of heating ducts littered the sidewalks, and massive fans, drying out basements and first floors, droned in concert with pressure washers and leaf blowers.

Irma did, however, bring a few pleasant, even beautiful, surprises.  A Coastal Expeditions team spotted a flamingo in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, apparently an evacuee from South Florida.  I found a dead sooty tern on Wadmalaw, an elegant sea bird that nests on the Dry Tortugas.  And the Center for Birds of Prey cancelled their annual extravaganza because of flooding on their Awendaw property, and because a flood (so to speak) of exotic birds arrived at the Center for rehabilitation.  I couldn’t find any reports on Irma’s impacts on wildlife, but I’m guessing that will be forthcoming when things settle down for humans.

Video coverage, both professional and amateur, of the storm and its aftermath was ubiquitous.  These links are especially high quality.  The first is an aerial overflight of the south end of Pawley’s Island.  You may remember that Pawley’s was bisected after Hugo.  Irma was gentler, but the shots of waves washing underneath houses is a sobering reminder of the transitory nature of coastal living.

South Strand News: Videos show Irma’s impact along county beaches

This next video, a drone flight over Captain Sams Spit on the western end of Kiawah, shows an increasingly narrow “neck” connecting the (reportedly, 50-foot-narrower) Spit to the main island.  It also illustrates the insubstantial nature of the Spit itself – just a nascent dune field between the Atlantic and the Kiawah River.

Vimeo: The Sandcastle west to Captain Sams Spit 

For me, the most harrowing images were videos of waves breaking on Murray Boulevard, with only the top railings of the Low Battery visible above the 10-foot tide in Charleston Harbor.  The deficiency of the Low Battery presents an existential threat to the 300-year-old city.  It is also the most striking symbol of the City of Charleston’s failure to invest adequately in storm protection, drainage and resiliency.

This article, by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith with the Post and Courier, provides a thorough overview of the lackadaisical pace of work.

Post and Courier: A tropical storm surge sends Charleston an urgent message: Here’s your future

From the article:

Over the past 34 years, Charleston has spent $239 million on drainage projects and is less than halfway done with a punch list of needed work identified in a 1984 study. 

How much more would the city have to spend to do all the drainage work that is needed?

(Charleston Engineering Director Laura) Cabiness said she doesn’t know, other than it would certainly be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are two points here.  First, the city has moved at a dangerously glacial pace on projects identified more than three decades ago.  Second, they have no idea what the cost of an updated, full-scale drainage and resilience program is – much less where the money will come from.

One person who has, in my view, an excellent idea of where the money could be found is Charleston civic leader, John Rivers.  In thisPost and Courier op-ed, John calls for bold action “before it’s too late,” and notes that the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) has been sitting on $400 million designated for the I-526 extension to John’s Island for more than a decade.

Post and Courier: Rivers editorial: Deal with flooding problems before it’s too late to fix them

Regardless of one’s point of view about I-526, the indisputable reality is that there isn’t enough money to build the road (now estimated to cost more than $700 million), so reprogramming the STIB funds to address critical, existential threats in Charleston County makes eminent sense.   If the Low Battery could be reconstructed and raised for $100 million, (a current estimate), this would leave $300 million for other work west of the Ashley, on James Island, in Mt. Pleasant and elsewhere on the peninsula.

But that’s not all.  John also notes that the S.C. State Ports Authority is parking cars on the most valuable land in South Carolina, for Carnival Cruise Lines customers.  He suggests that selling half of the 60-acre Union Pier property would yield $500 million.  Voila!  Almost $1 billion from just two sources.  And I would add that some of proceeds from the half cent sales tax, projected to generate $2 billion over the coming 20 years, could also be used for drainage, storm protection and resiliency.

The bottom line is that money is not the problem.  The problem is a lack motivation on the part of our political leaders.  With luck, and with hard work on the part of residents, Irma may change all of that.

As the State newspaper’s Sammy Fretwell reports, change is long overdue.

The State: Downtown Charleston is flooding more, with or without hurricanes. Here’s why.

This data from SC DHEC and NOAA has been available for years now.

From the late 1950s through 2013, Charleston experienced a 409 percent increase in flooding, much of it from water that pools up periodically during high tides, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Nuisance floods – which often result from high tides on non-rainy days – hit Charleston an average of 23 days annually from 2007 to 2013, according to NOAA. In 2015, the city had 38 days of flooding, and last year Charleston had a record 50 days of flooding, much of that tied to higher tides, according to NOAA.

In the late 1950s, the city experienced fewer than five days of flooding a year.


“We are moving at 10 mph, but we need to move at 60 mph,” conservationist Dana Beach said, noting that Charleston is spending money on questionable road projects that pull funds away from projects to address climate change.

Beach, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said the city needs a more comprehensive drainage plan, but it also needs to be more aggressive about making improvements. Charleston also needs to move ahead with plans to fortify what’s known as the “low battery’’ seawall, he said. The seawall surrounding the tip of the Charleston peninsula needs to be several feet higher, to match the height of a stronger wall that runs along the east side of the peninsula, Beach said.

“This has always been done piecemeal,” Beach said. “There has not been an ambitious moon shot approach to all this. We need to look at this comprehensively and I think the public is ready to listen.” 

Beyond spending public money to improve seawalls and drainage pipes, Beach said the city should work harder to stop new development in flood prone areas.

Condoning and subsidizing development in hazardous, flood prone areas has not been the sole purview of cities and counties.  The federal government has been a willing and enthusiastic partner, most notably by creating the Federal Flood Insurance Program in 1968.  The program provides highly subsidized insurance for homeowners in river floodplains and along the coast.  This article from the Wall Street Journal has a helpful video explaining the problems with that.

Wall Street Journal: The Government’s Growing Flood Problem

The short version (even shorter than the 2.5 minute video) is that the program, pre Harvey and Irma, was $25 billion in debt.  This reflects the cumulative subsidy transferred from taxpayers to policy owners (of which I am one) over the life of the program.  Harvey will add, roughly, another $11 billion, and Irma that amount again, for a total program debt of almost $50 billion.  This, in the memorable words of Everett Dirkson, is beginning to add up to real money.

One of the biggest flaws in the system is “repetitive loss” – houses that have been damaged and repaired with flood insurance payouts again and again.  One home, for example, valued at $69,000 flooded 34 times in 32 years, yielding $663,000 in federal claims.  These repetitive losses represent less than 2% of the homes insured, but account for 30% of the losses.

This next piece, an op-ed from the Post and Courier, explains the situation more thoroughly, recommends reforms, but also warns of the political difficulty in changing the status quo.

Post and Courier: Strother editorial: Five reasons that flood insurance will fail without reform

In the 1990s, I served on the board of a small organization called Coast Alliance.  Our sole mission was to reform the federal flood insurance program by adjusting premiums to represent actuarial risk.  We worked hard, but we failed.  The reason, as the op-ed explains, was that flood subsidies have vigorous political support.  I remember one reform bill being derailed by a powerful duo of coastal senators – Alfonse D’Amato and Strom Thurmond.  So much for the principle of fiscal conservatism!

The media’s coverage of the hurricanes, of the need for public investment in storm infrastructure, and of the flaws of the current web of policies and spending programs has been superb.  The information we need to address these types of threats is now readily and widely available.  All that remains now is to build the political leadership to pull it all together and mount a campaign for a sustainable future for our imperiled coast.

And finally, speaking of a sustainable future, this next article, from the BBC, reports that conservation programs have succeeded in stabilizing the population of snow leopards, a beautiful, mysterious cat that resides in the Himalayas.  The prescription will sound familiar – habitat preservation and work with human communities to reduce conflicts between leopards and livestock.

BBC: Snow leopard no longer ‘endangered’

From the article:

Snow leopard researchers believe the species’ decline may have been slowed by conservation projects – including some to protect farm animals from the predators, which are sometimes killed in revenge for livestock losses.

The number of protected areas within the snow leopards’ habitat has also increased significantly in recent decades.

What great news for this magnificent animal!  This work is compelling testament to the effectiveness of a small group of scientists and advocates, and the organizations that support them – organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera, the World Wildlife Fund and the Snow Leopard Trust.  As you will read, snow leopards are anything but home free, but the people who have made their prospects much brighter deserve our admiration, gratitude and support.

Enjoy this delightfully cool week!


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