Charleston's Chief Resilience Officer Fights Flooding and Sea Level Rise

Mar 7, 2018

Charleston's lower battery wall following Hurricane Irma
Credit Victoria Hansen / SC Public Radio

Mark Wilbert has been the man the city of Charleston has turned to in case of emergencies.  He helped people prepare for Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.   He was there after 9 parishioners at Mother Emanuel were killed.   Last August, he planned for a crowd of thousands in town for the solar eclipse.  Now the former city Emergency Management Director has a new job.  He's Charleston's first ever Chief Resilience officer.

"We're the first city in South Carolina to actually have this position," said Wilbert from his office at the Gaillard Center downtown.  So what is a resilience chief?  The group, “100 Resilient Cities”, created by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2013 describes it as a top-level advisor who reports directly to the mayor, establishing a resilience vision to maximize innovation and minimize the impact of unforeseen events.

Charleston's mayor announced the position in January during his state of the city address, calling flooding and the threat of sea level rise top priorities. Wilbert has wasted no time wading in. He’s immersed himself in the city’s 2013  Sea Level Rise Strategy, trying to revise and prioritized the lengthy list of initiatives for re-release this June.  He’s holding public meetings across the city, trying to explain a sea of acronyms for federal and state flood assistance, like the HMGP or Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.  He’s even hosting workshops on how to do what once unthinkable in the historic city, elevate downtown homes.

"I keep saying our homes are going to become uninsurable and unsellable." Carol Kelly historic homeowner

“I’ve been out of my house more the past years than I’ve been in it,” said Jenny Reynolds, a homeowner on the peninsula.  She says she’s had flood waters, even pluff  mud inside her home.  She recently attended a city meeting with neighbors to learn more about raising historic homes, only to discover they can’t afford it.

“I keep saying our houses are going to become uninsurable and unsellable,” said neighbor Carol Kelly.  She owns an historic home and worries about property values.

“People always ask me what the city is going to look like in 2100,” said Wilbert.  “I tell them it’s going to look a lot like it does now in many places, but it will be different in others.”  One place that will definitely be different is the Battery downtown.  Wilbert says  they will begin work this year to build the lower part of the wall two and a half feet higher, with the possibility of raising it even more.  He says it could take 10 years, at a cost of 100 million dollars.

Other projects include downtown drainage work.  Wilbert says the city has increased its budget from 8 million dollars to 12 million dollars a year to address so called nuisance flooding which frequently occurs at high tide whether it’s raining or not.  “Last year we had 50 of those days,” he said.  “The projection is we’re going to have 180 by 2040.”

“The problems we’re facing seem endless,” said Emily Cedzo with the Coastal Conservation League.  She says the group is relieved the city has finally hired a resilience chief as called for its 2013 Sea Level Rise Strategy.  But she says there’s much more that needs to be done.  Cedzo says the group looked at that 2013 list of initiatives last year and found only 26 of the 76 outlined had been or was in the process of being addressed. 

“We’d like to see a little bit more accountability and transparency,” said Cedzo.  “By that I mean spelling out deadlines.  We want a timeline for things.  I understand it takes a great deal of funding and again capacity, but let’s establish a plan that gives us a framework to stay accountable.”

Wilbert says that’s what he’s doing now as he makes revisions.  As for funding, he says city infrastructure projects alone could top one billion dollars over the next 20 to 40 years.  That’s why he says the city is hiring a grant writer and looking to the state legislature for new ways to use its hospitality taxes.  It’s a big job.  But Wilbert remains optimistic.

“I always say Charleston is such a great city with so many people who really care about it that I know we’re going to find a way to get through this.  I’m confident about that.”

The city’s first Chief Resilience officer seems to realize, he must be resilient himself.