Partnership Journalism•August 26, 2022
Small businesses hit as climate change floods Charleston's historic district
By John Upton (Climate Central), Sonya Stevens (ABC 4) and Charistin Clark (ABC 4)
Analysis of flood risk at Burwell's Restaurant in downtown Charleston (Climate Central)
CHARLESTON, SC— A forecast high tide is all it can take to prompt Donald Goodemote to shut down Burwell's Stone Fire Grill, one of the countless restaurants and hotels that caters to the droves of tourists that underpin the economy in Charleston's historic district.
"We had an incident where we started service at five o'clock as we do every day," Goodemote said. "There was no rain. By 6:30 we had about three to six inches of water throughout the entire restaurant."
Normally, flooding prevents guests from reaching Burwell's. But this time, he said it came on so quickly that guests were trapped inside the restaurant.
"We weren't able to get guests out," he said. "And then we ended up actually canceling service the following day, because the forecast was very similar."
The bustling district was developed on low land susceptible to flooding. Since then, tides have risen locally by more than a foot and flash flooding has become more extreme as warming temperatures have intensified rainfall rates.
In just four years working at Burwell's, Goodemote says he's seen flooding become more of a problem. It's so bad that buses driving past the restaurant during floods can create wakes that pound against the establishment.
"There was a period last summer, probably mid-June, where it just felt like once a week we were worried about it coming into the building," Goodemote said. "It would encroach onto the sidewalk almost once a week."
During those four years, Goodemote has started watching the weather forecasts more closely.
"I mean really keeping an eye on the weather report, knowing where the tides are, knowing how high the tides are expected to be and what time," he said. "Once you run into a situation where you have guests stranded in the building you have to do whatever you can to make sure that doesn't happen again, even if it means just preemptively canceling the day."
A Climate Central analysis showed Burwell's experiences significant coastal flood risks, with the highest risk toward the back of the building as well as around the alley and dumpsters. As seas continue to rise, those risks will worsen. Under a scenario where levels of fossil fuel pollution emissions remain high, flood risk would become chronic for the entire site by 2060. (The analysis looks at tides and doesn't consider the effects of rainwater, which in this location can be substantial.)
The city of Charleston is working with federal and state agencies to try to alleviate the flood risks across the peninsula, which is home to a number of medical facilities in addition to the restaurants, hotels and historic architecture and structures that make the area so popular.
Through ongoing improvements to stormwater infrastructure, including new and expanded pipes and pumps, the city is attempting to adapt to a new and wetter era created by ballooning levels of heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere.
"There's been a retrofit, a redevelopment of the city occurring over generations to get more resilient," said Dale Morris, Charleston's chief resilience officer.
And the acceleration of climate change is boosting the urgency of that multigenerational adaptation effort.
"In the last 15 or 20 years we've had a larger number of tidal flooding events than we had in the previous 80," he said, adding that flooding from heavy rainfall is also intensifying. "We're getting more rain in the same amount of time."
To protect the peninsula, the historic Battery promenade is undergoing an $85 million rehabilitation. The Battery was built to keep enemies and flood waters out, but it only protects a small portion of the peninsula.
To protect the rest of the peninsula, including Burwell's, the city is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a potential plan to build 8 miles of enormous tide gates at sea to reduce threats from tides and storm surges. Those planning efforts remain preliminary.
While big companies and realtors have long been averse to talk about climate change, Frank Knapp Jr., president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses tend to understand the existential threats it can pose to their operations.
Knapp has spent the last decade trying to raise awareness of the threats posed by rising seas to his group's members in Charleston. In 2013, he led a campaign that used blue tape to mark future potential water levels.
"From the tourism standpoint, we just simply wanted to raise the issue to get the public to understand," Knapp said. "There are certain areas on the peninsula of Charleston that are highly susceptible to flooding, both from flooding that's associated with rainstorms and from sea level rise, and the two work to the detriment of the locals, the tourists and the small businesses that rely on tourism to survive."
Since 2013, Knapp says public understanding of the problem has "absolutely" increased.
He pointed to Charleston's creation of Morris's position as evidence of a shift in attitudes, which he attributes in part to the increasing visibility of climate change impacts as temperatures continue to warm.
Knapp sees aggressive global momentum toward clean renewable energy as essential for the viability of the businesses operating in Charleston's historic district.
"With even three levels or four feet from sea-level rise, many of these really high-tourism areas in Charleston will be flooded twice a day," he said. "Obviously they can't survive that."
This story was produced through a collaboration between ABC News 4 Charleston and Climate Central, a nonadvocacy science and news organization. Alanna Elder (Climate Central) and Kelly Van Baalen (Climate Central) contributed data reporting.