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Charleston's Storm Preparations


This morning we've been reporting on where Hurricane Dorian has been, the devastation that it has caused and where it's going. But for the next few minutes, we're going to take a step back and talk about the future of storms like this. The fact is climate change is making slow, rainy hurricanes like Dorian more likely. And global warming is also affecting many coastal cities in other ways - higher seas, more rain - even when there isn't a hurricane. And cities like Charleston, S.C., are now taking new precautions ahead of big storms. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hurricane Dorian smacked Charleston with enough wind and rain to down trees and cancel school and flood a bunch of streets. But the city's chief resilience officer, Mark Wilbert, knew exactly which streets it would be.

MARK WILBERT: Under that pressure right there - see the water coming up?

HERSHER: Before the storm had even finished its business, Wilbert took me out in his big official SUV to show me where the water was.

WILBERT: This road right here typically floods, so I can take you to this. This road floods really bad right here.

HERSHER: He has a map in his head of all the roads that flood on a routine basis when there isn't a hurricane.

WILBERT: This is the place within the city that drains last.

HERSHER: Like many cities in Dorian's path, Charleston is low and wet. The sea level here is rising quickly, and normal rainstorms are dumping more rain than they used to because of climate change. And that means all it takes is a thunderstorm or a high tide and major roads are underwater.

WILBERT: All of these cities along the coast, this is what is their new normal.

HERSHER: That's forced Charleston and other low-lying coastal cities to start investing millions of dollars in flood control.

WILBERT: So what we're coming up on here is what's known as our battery wall or seawall.

HERSHER: This wall is really old. It's from the 1800s, and a lot of it is too low to hold back today's tides, which means water in the park, water in people's homes, water in the bike lanes. So the city is planning to build it higher.

WILBERT: We're planning for two to three feet of sea level rise.

HERSHER: The local government has also started putting special valves onto storm drains to prevent seawater from flowing into neighborhoods and installing massive pump stations to push water out of the drains and into the harbor. All of those things helped Charleston stay relatively dry during Dorian. Still, the city would not have fared well if this week's hurricane had hit square on.

Captain Chip Searson has been with the police department for more than 40 years. On Thursday afternoon, he was in Charleston's emergency command center.

CHIP SEARSON: We, again, dodged a proverbial bullet. Charleston has, and we're extremely lucky. I mean, my - my stomach really gets in a knot every hurricane season.

HERSHER: Searson says he lived through the last major storm to hit the city hard - Hurricane Hugo in the late '80s. It was devastating. And it would be worse this time with higher sea levels. He does say that dealing with the routine flooding in town made his officers more ready for this week's flooding.

SEARSON: I think we get a little bit better at of it unfortunately. You know, you wish we didn't have as much practice, but it seems we have practice weekly, monthly. You know, I think it makes us more well-prepared than someone who's never had that experience.

HERSHER: It's a small but meaningful upside to a difficult situation for Charleston and for dozens of other cities like it. Being vulnerable can help push you to do the hard things that make you more resilient. Wilbert sees it clearly every day.

WILBERT: The vulnerabilities drive you to be resilient or not. And if you're not resilient, then you're not going to be around very long.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.