The Changing Coast

When communities flood, neighbors help each other. This same can-do spirit will also help southern communities adapt to the rising water that is becoming a part of life in many coastal cities.


Photo © Matthew Fortner, Post and Courier

SELC is working with southern communities to adapt to rising seas and a changing climate.

More water, more often

Climate change and sea level rise contribute to costly, chronic flooding in cities like Charleston and Norfolk. In North Carolina, the shoreline is swiftly eroding. Rising seawater jeopardizes everything from wildlife refuges to military bases.

And the storms that routinely pelt the coast -- from summer squalls to ferocious hurricanes --are getting stronger, carrying more moisture, and unleashing more rain.

The southeastern coast is one of the nation’s most extraordinary natural treasures, but the barrier islands, salt marshes and historic shores are undergoing rapid changes. In the balance is the beauty and bounty that provides respite, recreation and commerce for Southerners and visitors alike.

Without action, the impacts of climate change, more powerful storms, and sea level rise will put our beaches at risk, threaten our communities with overwhelming floods, and upend economies that rely on coastal resources. But fortunately, there are steps we can take to meet these challenges.

When storms settle over Charleston's waterfront, sometimes it's hard to tell where the harbor ends and the city begins. Photo: Jared Bramblett

Protecting critical wetlands and marshes

Many southern cities were built over filled wetlands. That history can’t be changed, so it’s critical to protect what wetlands remain.

Wetlands store water and absorb flooding. When wetlands are destroyed, that water storage and flood protection is lost. SELC is working to ensure that development plans avoid or minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the disturbance or destruction of wetlands and floodplains. 

Stopping unneeded development in vulnerable areas

In many communities, homeowners are trapped in a cycle of flooding and rebuilding. That’s one reason the National Flood Insurance Program is billions of dollars in debt.

SELC is working with state lawmakers to create buy-back funding sources to purchase these oft-flooded properties from beleaguered homeowners who need help, and to turn those parcels into natural areas.

In South Carolina, SELC worked with key partners to help pass legislation that created a new state office to tackle flooding and adaptation, and to appoint a “flooding czar” to oversee it. This new South Carolina law, the Disaster Relief and Resilience Act, also establishes a revolving loan and grant program to help communities purchase properties that repeatedly flood, and to turn those properties back into natural areas for flood storage.

At the same time, SELC is working to prevent developers from building in vulnerable areas, and that effort includes minimizing shoreline armoring -- like seawalls and jetties – on beaches, bays, sounds and tidal creeks.  

Photo: Matthew Fortner, Post and Courier

Protecting communities from toxic flooding

Many industrial facilities handing toxic materials are ill prepared for increasing coastal flooding. When these industrial sites are inundated, polluted runoff endangers nearby communities.

SELC is pressing for better siting and management of industrial facilities to protect our communities from this threat.