The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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Shrimp 'n Grits

No funds for flood-relief, but Millions for the Gaillard Renovation

Lee Walton

As Charleston watches with timorous dread, another string of tropical storms and strengthening hurricanes are beginning their annual march across the Atlantic to once again threaten the Lowcountry. Images of extensive property loss and extreme destruction wrought by Katrina five years ago and similar devastation by Hugo over twenty years ago remain seared in the minds of many whose property and livelihoods were devastated by these massive hurricanes. Nonetheless, Mayor J. Pericles Riley remains content to play his annual game of Russian roulette with the lives and property of Charlestonians. Riley continues to divert critical funding from the proper maintenance of Charleston’s aging storm drainage infrastructure to his high visibility, world-class monuments of dubious value, including his latest gilded vision to renovate the Gaillard Auditorium for $142 million.

Periodic flooding in some low-lying Peninsula neighborhoods has been accepted and, to some extent, tolerated for generations. Nevertheless, more severe and wider spread downtown flooding is now commonplace. Its damaging impacts upon property, commerce, tourism and private vehicles continue to accelerate. Yet, for almost four decades Riley only promises relief from the Peninsula’s now all-too-frequent flooding. Like a frog croaking after every spring shower, each time major flooding occurs downtown, Pericles resurrects his same old shop-worn damage control rhetoric as fodder for his loyal media cronies and long-suffering constituents.

The primary cause of Charleston’s increased flooding is the continued squandering of Charleston’s finite financial resources on Riley’s unending string of high visibility, want-to-be award-winning monuments to his ego. For almost four decades, normal maintenance and cleaning of the Peninsula’s storm drains have been shamefully ignored. The damaging consequences of this chronic under-funding and lack of routine maintenance are now far greater than an occasional embarrassment and have become the harbinger of another public tragedy during a future hurricane. But for Riley, maybe that’s what it takes. He now has to spend millions to rebuild and retrain his Charleston Fire Department that for decades was stripped bare of all but spit, polish, bravado and flammable uniforms. As with his Fire Department and routine drainage maintenance, Riley will never admit that the greatest neglects to and denials of adequate public safety and the most basic of public services in the last century of Charleston’s history have occurred on his all-too-lengthy watch.

Riley’s much-touted Calhoun Street pump/tunnel project, his most costly drainage project completed thus far, remains plagued with operational problems while offering only limited protection from storm events having less than a ten years occurrence probability. It would be worthless during a hurricane storm surge. What little benefit it currently provides is compromised by its limited design capacity and lack of emergency electrical power - when SCE&G power fails, it stops pumping. Riley’s next mega-million dollar deep pump/tunnel drainage project will target his cash cow Market Street Tourist District. Unfortunately, Riley’s Market Street project will also be dependant upon large, expensive pumps and deep tunnels requiring tens of millions to fund and several years to construct.

Like the Fire Department, Charleston’s aging storm drains cannot be kept barely functional on starvation level funding for decades without unintended consequences. Playing catch-up after years of severe under-funding and gross neglect in today’s regulatory and construction cost environments will be a daunting task. Sadly, Riley lacks the altruistic will and leadership skills to implement less expensive, more economical “Plan-B’s” to provide quicker, less costly drainage relief to several long-suffering neighborhoods in the Peninsula. Aging drainage infrastructure that could have been maintained annually at reasonable costs with adequate funding will now take decades of dedicated sacrifice and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to clean and repair.

Almost two decades ago, when Riley was campaigning for reelection, a flurry of blue and white bumper stickers appeared throughout several downtown neighborhoods boldly stating the obvious. As crude as it sounded, this statement is more applicable today than ever - It’s the Drainage Stupid.

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