Sea level rises cause concern in Beaufort, Port Royal

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By Kat Walsh

Rising sea levels and storm surges threaten Beaufort and Port Royal with more flooding, more shoreline erosion and more drowning of coastal wetlands.

Those concerns led to the formation of a group called the Beaufort and Port Royal Sea Level Rise Task Force, which is in the process of creating recommendations on how to deal with these important  issues.

“It all started two years ago with a small group of interested and knowledgeable people in my living room,” said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

The group is addressing sea level rise and storm surge, two troubling phenomena that are both affecting the area. In Beaufort and Port Royal, for instance, the sea level has risen 6 inches since 1965.

Some of the first impacts of the sea level rising is more nuisance flooding, and a mixing of salt water with freshwater.

This problem is compounded by storm surge, which is the rise in water above the normal tide that occurs when winds from a storm push water towards the shore.

Timing matters: If a storm occurs during high tide, a community will experience much more storm surge and flooding. That in turn leads to impacts on property, critical infrastructure and the safety and well-being of citizens.

After a year of research using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Systems Research Institute demographic model, the task force was able to identify specific hot spots – low-lying areas most vulnerable to rising water levels.

The seven locations are the: Boundary Street area, North Street/Water’s Edge area, the Point/Historic Downtown Beaufort, Lady’s Island airport area, Mossy Oaks, Southside Park and the Port/Sands area of Port Royal.

Unlike the other areas of concern, the Lady’s Island airport is not a waterfront property. But because of its low elevation, it’s one of the most vulnerable spots in the area. During extreme high tides (known as “king tides”), the runway becomes vulnerable to inundation.

Dan Ahren, task force member and engineer with the National Stormwater Center, said the airport is in the process of getting federal grants to bring the runway and airport up to national standards.

“So one of the recommendations is that if we have these federal funds, we might as well build the runways up so it won’t cause problems in the future,” he said.

In making its recommendations as to how the area can become more resilient to the inundation threats, the task force is looking at what measures other cities have taken to address current and future impacts of storm surge and future sea level rise and outlined strategies that will protect and accommodate these vulnerable areas now and in the future.

“We are in the process of finalizing our recommendations so that an engineering firm could see what the next steps would be,” said task force member Frank Knapp, president & CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

Another goal of the task force is getting the information out to the community.

“It’s been a huge education challenge. In most cases, we’re talking about a period longer than a 30-year mortgage before people see huge changes. But there should be concern now,” said task force member Kate Schaefer, South Coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League.

“A lot of people deal with the immediately threat – the king tides and flooding,” she said. “But the big challenge is getting people to look at the long-term threat. A failure to act now will make these communities and their residents more vulnerable in the future, whether it is a normal weather event or catastrophic.”

Keyserling agrees, “Sea level rise is like diabetes. If we stay in denial, we will get very sick. If we acknowledge the onset of the disease and follow a plan, it is likely we can lead a normal life.”

To see what your neighborhood could look like with sea level rise and to learn more about the task force’s work and recommendations, visit  www.bprsealevelrise.wordpress.com.