Opinion: As seas rise, Charleston hopes to prevent disaster


In Charleston, a place where street lines blur with sunny day tidal flooding and major storms dump enough water on downtown that one can kayak the deluge, Dale Morris is right at home.

For decades, Morris has consulted on the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast on all things water – from coastal restoration to flood protection and risk mitigation.

He is now Charleston’s chief resilience officer.

Even before he took the position, Morris had a hand in planning management and adaptation strategies for the city as climate change inevitably continues to heighten Charleston’s flooding issues.

Resting in the hands of Congress is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal for a $1.1 billion sea wall that would encapsulate about 8 miles of Charleston’s peninsula in the city that’s expected to continue to swell in population.

Then there’s the expansion and repair of deep underground tunnels that connect to drop shafts that pull in the storm water and pumps that push it into the Ashley River. The Medical District drainage tunnel extension at Ehrhardt Street is one of those projects that would alleviate sitting water so ambulances can drive through with ease. It comes with a $14 million price tag.

These are just some of the city’s flood mitigation plans.

They’re huge and intricate undertakings, but Morris is neither a developer nor an engineer. He’s an economist and strategist, pulling together local, state and federal leaders to ensure Charleston doesn’t become the next New Orleans.

His answers to the hard questions aren’t rooted in American policies; they were formed over 4,000 miles away – in the Netherlands.

Decades ago, the Dutch poured $5 billion into creating barriers, dams, dikes, levees and two of the world’s largest storm surge barriers, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

But in the early ‘90s, subsequent flooding battered the northwestern European country, and the Dutch realized they’d have to let the water in, that walls weren’t a catchall solution to the continually rising North Sea.

No, they didn’t do away with barriers, pumps and sand dunes.

Experts who talked with Smithsonian Magazine said the Dutch made room for the water, creating parks and lakes to function as emergency reservoirs for when it floods.

What made the Dutch method to flood mitigation special, Morris said, is how its national government, provinces and municipalities swiftly got on the same page.

“That doesn’t occur here,” Morris said. “If it occurs here, it’s by accident in some ways.”

The Army Corps of Engineers’ proposal for the Charleston storm surge structure is currently in the hands of Congress.

If approved, it would move into the design phase.

As for Morris, the immensity in tackling what is seen as a sinking city doesn’t intimidate him. The 62-year-old has been settled in Charleston, a surprise to the mountain-lover himself, for nearly a year.

And he has no intention of slowing down.

This story is distributed by the Tribune Content Agency.