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Riley Administration laments no funds available for flood-relief projects
Lee Walton

As the nation watches once again with guarded anticipation, a string of tropical storms and potential hurricanes are lining-up in the Caribbean and Atlantic to threaten low-lying coastal communities in Southeast and Gulf Coast States. Images of the personal turmoil and massive devastation wrought by the likes of Katrina, Andrew, and Hugo remain like fresh scars in the minds of millions whose lives, property, and livelihoods were impacted by these incomprehensible events. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people continue to migrate into these most vulnerable parts of our nation each year; most are oblivious to the natural dangers posed by massive hurricanes and the overwhelming challenges faced by local governments when confronted with these potential disasters.

Charleston’s current administration, unlike those of most other coastal cities throughout the South, remains content to play an annual game of Russian Roulette with the lives and property of its citizens by continuing to divert critically needed local revenue from storm water infrastructure construction and maintenance in favor of more politically beneficial, high-visibility projects of dubious value. For over three decades, the Riley Administration has failed to develop a concerted, well-planned strategy to cope with chronic flooding commonplace throughout most of the Peninsula and low-lying suburbs.

The only high visibility drainage project completed to thus far on the Peninsula, the Calhoun Street Pump/Tunnel System, remains plagued with operational problems and offers only limited protection from rainfall events having a return frequency of ten-years or less. For all intent and purpose, the Calhoun Street Pump/Tunnel Project would be worthless to combat a major storm surge. What little benefit it could provide is compromised by its limited capacity and lack of stand-by power generation equipment; when the power goes out, it will simply stop pumping. Riley’s few other top storm drainage priorities continue to target the high visibility Market Street Tourist District at the expense of West Side residential communities within the much-maligned Spring Street and Fishburne Street Drainage Basin. Even so, what plans that do exist all follow the exceedingly expensive reliance upon large pumps and deep tunnels with limited capacity that will require hundreds of millions of public funds and decades to construct. As with local funding options for CARTA, dependent solely on ˝ cent sales tax revenue, Riley and his Director of Public Services lack the experience, understanding, and insight to develop less expensive, more readily implementable Plan-B’s to provide quicker drainage relief to several long-suffering areas of Charleston.

Two recent Palter and Chatter articles by David Slade typify Riley’s approach to the funding of major flood-relief projects – blame the lack of necessary funds on someone else, in this case the Federal Government. While Riley and his bought-by-the-pound Council crony, Want-a-be Big-Man Gilliard, run off repeatedly to Washington to cajole our politically touchable legislators in a blatant show of unabashed hypocrisy, Charleston’s City Engineer has the audacity to cry that “The federal government probably needs to get back into the infrastructure business.” Where was Ms. Cabiness when Riley built the $40 million-plus Ballpark, the $90 million-plus Aquarium, or tied up the Peninsula’s tax base in tax increment financing districts for decades to fund tourist related renovation projects at the expense of meaningful funding for flood prevention projects?

Over the past few years, several Shrimp ‘n Grits commentaries have been devoted to the subject of flooding in Charleston. One in particular summed-up the root cause of Riley’s inability to grasp the complexity of the problem; the closing paragraphs of that August 27, 2006 article remain as valid today as they were two years ago:

Pericles tolerates urban flooding throughout his Acropolis because he doesn’t possess a sufficient knowledge or understanding of the problem to grasp its magnitude and complexity. Its solution is long-term, very expensive, underground, out of sight (unless it doesn’t function properly) and most importantly to Pericles, it’s not glamorous or very newsworthy. Storm water management and problem resolution have always been a mystery to Pericles. It’s one of the unique issues that have plagued his administration for three decades. He fears what he can’t understand and sees anyone as a threat if they understand what he can’t. That’s why he isn’t willing to hire and keep a professional, experienced engineering staff qualified to tackle the problem on the required scale; he just can’t stand to delegate the long-term management and solution of this complex, technical issue to the competent, professional experts essential to its resolution.

Over a decade ago, just before Pericles was up for reelection for the even then umpteenth time, a flurry of blue and white bumper stickers were seen around Charleston boldly stating the obvious. As seemingly crude as it was, this statement is still applicable today - “It’s the Drainage Stupid”.

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