Inside 40 Years of Natural Disaster Preparation in South Carolina


In the face of natural disasters, communities need to do the best job possible to communicate risks and appropriate actions to our citizens. Joseph Riley Jr., former mayor of Charleston, South Carolina

Pew project: Flood-Prepared Communities

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In a conversation with Trust, Charleston’s former mayor Joseph Riley Jr. discusses flood readiness and response. During his 10 terms, Riley helped implement flood management changes like smart urban design, improvements to stormwater systems, and a comprehensive strategy for addressing the city’s sea level rise. Riley, who also oversaw the city’s $10 billion recovery after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, is now a Pew distinguished fellow.

Charleston is a charming city renowned for its history, architecture, and culture—but it’s also low-lying and bordered by two rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, making it vulnerable to hurricanes, king tides, and sea level rise. What have you done to make the city better able to withstand floods and extreme weather?

Flood readiness and response

Charleston has embarked on a number of initiatives to make the city more sustainable and durable and to adapt to the changes already arriving with sea level rise. We initiated measures involving many disciplines in city government—from public safety to public service to emergency management—to ensure critical response and preparedness. 

Necessary reinvestment has been ongoing since 1984, when the city adopted its Master Drainage and Flood Plain Management Plan. This plan led to the creation of revenue streams to help finance major drainage projects that have provided relief in many areas of the city, including the historic and low-lying peninsula and the large suburban areas that confront different flooding challenges.

Several projects have been completed and others are in design phases. The city has spent or set aside more than $235 million to complete ongoing projects.

Just before you retired as mayor in January 2016, you released a Sea Level Rise Strategy for Charleston calling for infrastructure improvements and processes to prepare for higher tides. What were some of the major recommendations?

Our Sea Level Rise Strategy was organized around a threefold approach: reinvestment, response, and readiness. 

Planning is critical to a successful sea level rise strategy, as is a built-in mechanism to adapt early to unexpected changes in forecasts. Major recommendations include planning for the next 50 years, using federal estimates. Fifty years is in line with today’s best scientific projections about rising seas. 

Continuing the stormwater drainage program is key for Charleston. The work done so far has allowed us to absorb the increased flooding caused by sea level rise and weather microbursts.

Regularly updating this plan will be critical to broadly understanding where a community’s greatest risk lies, and it also allows time to study sewer or stormwater drains in and around the city. With that information, officials can devise solutions to flooding problems and ensure that new development can occur in accordance with site-specific engineering of drainage plans that use green infrastructure where appropriate.

Flood readiness and response

Flood waters stop a Charleston resident short as he attempts to leave a house on Broad Street after Hurricane Matthew struck the South Carolina city on October 8, 2016. (© Brian Blanco/Getty Images)

What did last fall’s Hurricane Matthew reveal about the work already done in Charleston, and challenges still facing the city?

Hurricane Matthew was a stark reminder of the relentless increase the brutal effects of more frequent flooding events have on our infrastructure and the quality of life in the city. The measures undertaken in Charleston, especially the planning and drainage improvements made over the last several years, helped mitigate the damage from Matthew. And our well-organized emergency operations system worked superbly to protect the community, keep residents informed, and prevent loss of life or serious injury.

But reactive measures alone are not enough. We know this problem will increase, so only by working collaboratively across the national, state, and local levels will we be able to get ahead of it and manage its effects.

How can this strategy be applied to cities around the U.S.? What is the federal government’s role?

Sea level rise strategies exist in several cities. New York and Newport News, Virginia, are two examples. Studying these plans, and developing clear steps for a process, would be helpful to communities across the United States and allow them to understand their own particular risks and create their own strategy. Also needed are tools to help with the prioritization and cost-estimation processes. 

Only an effort led by the federal government will be optimally useful in helping cities develop and then execute sea level rise strategies. Many departments of the federal government are now involved in one aspect or another of sea level rise. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Flood Insurance Program are critical, but a sea level rise strategy must include many other agencies, such as the National Weather Service, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to name a few. 

One of our main goals has been to maintain a relationship with the scientific community, federal and state agencies, and local governments for the free and timely exchange of information on the impacts of sea-level rise to the city and region.

As the number of federal disaster declarations increases, how can we better prepare and protect communities?  

In the face of natural disasters, communities need to do the best job possible to communicate risks and appropriate actions to our citizens. We need to provide them with the tools to protect themselves and their property. Once the disaster arrives, communities need to be well-prepared to mobilize and bring in any aid needed.  

After a disaster, how can communities reduce future risk and rebuild infrastructure to better withstand the next extreme weather event?  

When disaster strikes, an opportunity arises to learn and rebuild in a way that makes our communities stronger. Adopting and enforcing the most up-to-date building codes, evaluating our interface between the shore and the water’s edge, and having comprehensive emergency plans to retreat and evacuate when necessary are essential to protecting our cities and states.   

Recognition is growing that natural solutions can play a role in making communities more resilient. Do you believe nature should be part of a city’s mitigation, adaptation, and risk management plan? 

Absolutely! In our own community, we see places that are absorbing more tidal and flood water, whether it’s at the natural edge of a sloping waterfront park or land that slowly, over time, is becoming marsh as its number of days with tidal influence increases. In this planning, it is essential that the managers of these properties understand the multiple purposes of these public properties.

What’s your advice to community leaders, mayors, and other elected officials who want to make their areas better able to withstand future weather events and the changing climate? 

Plan, communicate the plan, and then adjust the plan as needed during its implementation. Encourage collaboration across departments within the city and across the region and state for innovative solutions that help the greatest number of people.