How Students Combat Charleston’s Flooding
By Aidan Sweeney
Published Nov. 22, 2022
CHARLESTON, S.C. - College of Charleston students have been fighting floods for years. And in this rainy South Carolina coastal city, these floods are no joke.
It floods “every time it rains no matter how much rain we get seemingly. It can rain for an hour or a whole day and the street will be flooded,” said College of Charleston senior Evan Riley.
Riley said he often skips classes when downtown flooding occurs.
“If it’s raining, I might just not be going to class that day, because I might not be able to get home unless I swim home,” Riley added. “Because on Morris (Street) you'll be in chin high deep flood water, and it's just not, it's not great.”
These floods aren't something unique to Riley however, as citizens of Charleston have been living with this since the origins of the city.
Before the city was founded, many creeks spanned across the Charleston peninsula. As time went on and the city expanded, these creeks were filled in.
This is the source of many of Charleston’s ongoing flooding issues, the locations of these once creeks are still the lowest points in the city, according to The City of Charleston Stormwater Service.
And this causes water to naturally gather in these depressed areas, resulting in flooding.
This is a problem that almost everyone who lives in Charleston could attest to and while students are trudging through the floods to get to class, the city has put plans in motion to help ease these pains.
“We simply must make flooding and drainage our city's top long-range priority,"
Mayor John Tecklenburg decreed in the State of the City Address back in 2018.
But how does this hold up today?
The city has made progress toward flooding prevention, which is addressed in great detail in the Charleston SC Flooding & Sea Level Rise Strategy.
This includes major drainage improvements on Market Street, Spring Street, and Forest Acres. Along with this, the city has worked to improve the Battery Seawall and is making strides towards improving conditions through a five sectioned plan of focusing infrastructure, governance, resources, land use, and community outreach towards flood mitigation.
While city officials work toward this future in flooding prevention, how are students in the present surviving these floods?
According to students, most of the time this means just not attending classes.
“I never really ask for them to be excused,” Riley said, adding that he figures many others don't go to class either. “I can say from experience, if I’m in a class when it does rain, I can tell you there's not a whole lot of people there, the attendance drops significantly.”
College of Charleston senior Thomas McKinnon admits he’s one of those.
“Yeah, I've missed class a few times,” McKinnon said. “Sometimes it feels not traversable.”
But in some cases, these students cannot afford to miss class and attest to having to navigate the flooded streets - which they loathingly refer to as “the gray water.”
“I mean I've had the worry about walking through the gray water of Charleston and like all the trash and sharp things could be stepping on in my bare feet because I had to take my shoes off and roll up my pants,” said senior John Knobloch.
In downtown Charleston much of the flooding is also due to high tide flooding the sewers, and when it begins to rain, this additional water causes the high tide to flood into the streets, according to The City of Charleston Stormwater Service.
This explains the phenomenon that students describe where it floods no matter how severe the rainfall.
What this means is that these students don't only have to worry about what was on the street that they could be walking through but also what was in the sewers.
The city is attempting to resolve these issues through previously mentioned drainage improvement projects around the city outlined in Flooding & Sea Level Rise Strategy. This includes a check valve program which should help prevent sea water from backing up into the drainage system.
Along with the issue of walking through sewer water, The City of Charleston Stormwater Service has outlined trash as one of seven major problems the city faces in flooding mitigation. Trash and debris floating in the flood water can get stuck over storm grates blocking water from draining when it should.
From the students’ perspectives The College seems to remain neutral on flooding concerns for its off-campus students.
Advisories are sent from the College of Charleston Emergency Management Team warning students and will include messages against traversal of flooded streets.
“Turn around and don't drown when encountering flooded roads. Most flood deaths occur in vehicles. Be aware of your surroundings and do not drive or walk on flooded roadways. Take necessary actions to protect flood-prone property.”
But at the same time, they highlight the statement: “Please note that the College of Charleston campus remains on its normal schedule.”
While these conflicting messages have frustrated some students, most attest to faculty and professors being accommodating toward flooding.
“Mostly faculty is understanding,” said McKinnon. “Like If I tell a teacher that I was late because of the weather and they see me soaked everyone understands, and I think most teachers know how bad it can get so should excuse genuine absences.”