Broken Ground | Season 3 | Episode 6


Find out what we learned about sea level rise in the South this season. Who will be hit the hardest? What can we do? How can we navigate a path forward?

Episode Transcript

Find out what we learned about sea level rise in the South this season. Who will be hit the hardest? What can we do? How can we navigate a path forward?





(sound of rain)


HOST: This is Broken Ground. If you’ve been listening this season you know we’ve been telling the stories of people who are living through sea level rise. The fallout of climate change touches all of us, but for the people we met in Charleston, South Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, the rising water is at their doorstep.


(sound of water lapping)


MARQUITTA WHITE: So when it floods, it – [clap] – it’s instant, whether it’s a light rain, a mist rain, you know, it floods.


DOUG BEAVER: There were areas that were well outside the flood zone that flooded, where NO ONE had flood insurance.


KAREN SPEIGHTS: I have two life jackets because I can’t swim. What if I have to get my mother out of here?


SKIP STILES: I can’t knock on their front door and go, “Oh my God, you’re gonna die, it’s sea level rise!” So you basically just have to wait for people to come to the conclusion they need to get out.


MARK WILBERT: We’re not going to be able to wall in the world from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We’re just not.


(sound of waves)




HOST: I’m Claudine Ebeid-McElwain. Like all the stories we tell here on Broken Ground, the people we met while exploring sea level rise this season are right at the heart of this environmental crisis in the South. From coastal scientists to city officials to residents with persistently flooded homes, everyone we talk to has a stake in what happens next. If you haven’t already heard our first five episodes, I really hope you’ll go back and listen.




HOST: Right now, I want to talk takeaways — tell you about the people I met and things I learned that I still keep thinking about every time I hear about a storm or flooding. To start, I have to say that when we began this series, I had never thought about land fill before. I’m not talking about landfills like trash dumps, I’m talking about the stuff that’s used to build up low-lying land so we can put up houses and other buildings.


AL GEORGE: And this was not like fill using the best science, it was literally dirt, debris, building land the old fashioned way.


HOST: Al George is the head of Conservation at the South Carolina Aquarium.


AL: Unfortunately, we filled in areas that were creek beds, marshlands.


HOST: So you know what this practice is called? It’s called “land “reclamation.” The first time I heard someone use that phrase, I did a double take because it didn’t make sense to me. Who are we RECLAIMING the land from?


AL: A lot of our flooding is not just about sea level rise, it is actually us not using smart land development practices from our inception. So surprise, surprise — if something was once a creek or something was once a wetland, guess what it kind of has a natural tendency towards, right?


HOST:  In other words, it looks like the water is doing the “reclaiming” now. Norfolk’s Chief Resilience Officer Doug Beaver puts a pretty fine point on what this means:


DOUG: You’ve got to understand what it looked like several hundred years ago because that’s what it’s gonna look like in a hundred years from now, if those current sea level rise figures bear out.


HOST: And Norfolk is planning for a major increase when it comes to sea level rise:  four and a half more feet by 2100. Meanwhile the water has already risen enough in Norfolk and Charleston to cause regular sunny day flooding and big time calamity after major storms.


JENI HELMLY: Chaos. Utter chaos.


HOST: For Pediatric Nurse Jeni Helmly in Charleston a bad storm makes her job even harder.


JENI: Because you can’t get to the hospital and if you’re at the hospital, you can’t get away. I mean, you know, nurses have children and families and they’re concerned because they can’t leave the hospital and go get their kids from school or daycare.


HOST: And the frequency with which people were having to wade through waters in these cities also got us thinking. What’s actually IN that water? And I think you can guess it’s not good.


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: When water comes in off the landscape, any fertilizer on it, any pet waste, any trash, dirty diapers, everything goes in.


HOST: I mean, I always knew flood water could be gross but after spending a day with Oceanography Professor Margie Mulholland from Old Dominion University, I am never getting near flood water without tall boots again.


MARGIE: We don’t know the whole suite of contaminants we’re introducing. But really if it’s raining or flooding, people should just know don’t go in the water, because there will be [bleep] in it. Literally! It’s just gross.


HOST:  Like many of our coastal communities, Norfolk and Charleston have a problem. And it’s not coming down the road, it’s here right now. That’s why both these cities now have offices dedicated to managing sea level rise.


(opening door)


MARK: We’re going to be right down at that last conference room to the left there if you want to go set up.


CLAUDINE & PAIGE: Great. Thank you so much.


HOST: And while people ARE still talking about building sea walls and bulkheads to wall out the water, they’re also talking increasingly about “green” solutions — like restoring wetlands and designing parks that can flood when necessary. Solutions that invite the water in, rather than walling it out.


MARK: How great is that, right?


HOST: This is Mark Wilbert, Chief Resilience Officer for Charleston.


MARK: Flood the park and no one’s there when it’s flooding and then the waters go away. And if it can hold some water to help keep water off the streets and out of people’s homes while it’s doing it? Double benefit.


HOST: If there’s been one thing that’s given me hope as we’ve worked on this series it’s that green solutions have a real opportunity to be the drivers of what comes next. Here’s Al George again.


AL: There has to be a plan for green infrastructure, the salt marshes. Because guess what? They are our best natural defense. And so the question is, where are we making room for marsh migration?


HOST: Marsh migration is when marshes that are continually drowned by water start to move, migrate upland. I didn’t know what Marsh Migration was when we started and now I want to know why everyone is NOT talking about it. I learned about it by calling up my colleague Jenny Brennan at the Southern Environmental Law Center and asking her to explain it to me over Zoom.


JENNY: Here we go.


CLAUDINE: Can you hear me?




HOST: And it sounds like a real solution.


JENNY: It’s this really fantastic natural response that allows the marsh to preserve itself. So yes,there are areas that are going to be submerged with sea level rise, but there’s this new marsh habitat that is created through this process.


HOST: But if we want marshes to continue providing all their natural benefits — holding floodwater, absorbing pollutants and providing habitat — people need to make room for them to migrate.


SKIP STILES: If we want the wetlands to come back in, we’ve got to help these people get out of the way.


HOST: Skip Stiles of Wetlands Watch says we can start moving away from the coast thoughtfully or we can wait until it’s too late.


SKIP: You know, I, I really do think that we’re rapidly running out of time to do something about it in an orderly fashion.


HOST: An “orderly fashion” is sometimes called “managed retreat.” Almost everyone I talked to got a little squeamish using the word “retreat.”


JENNY: Managed retreat is often a sticky subject, right? It’s complicated, and as a result, a lot of groups and governments are really hesitant to openly discuss it.


DOUG BEAVER: This is an ongoing conversation, and it’s a hard conversation. There are some folks who will not want to move out of their neighborhood.


MARK: There’s places that we’ve built that we should not have built and probably the best thing to do is move people out of there.


AL: A lot of people throw around the word “retreat” but my thing is you can’t throw around the word “retreat” if you don’t have a plan for everyone.


HOST: To retreat sounds to me like we’re in a fight with the water. Maybe it’s time we start thinking about this differently. I mean, what’s the first thing we teach our kids when we take them to the ocean? “Respect the strength of the water.” It’s understandable that people get nervous when you start to talk about retreat, because we’re talking about people’s lives. People like Karen Speights, whose house has been repeatedly and disastrously flooded.


KAREN: It’s just so way over my head.


HOST: After years of careful planning for retirement in her childhood home, why should Karen have everything now upended?


KAREN: My plan was, ‘I’ll just remodel it some, so when I retire, everything’s good and I can do what I want.’ And then the water came, and it changes everything.


HOST: After talking to people over this last year about climate change and sea level rise, there is one thing that I now think about all the time. And that’s the structural racism that’s been in place in our country for generations and how it’s playing out in this climate crisis. We are NOT all paying the same price for this fallout. As flooding problems peak in Norfolk, it’s the public housing residents like Marquitta White and Marie Webb who are first on the list to be relocated.


MARQUITTA WHITE: It sucks that we live here and we have to kind of be uprooted, but at the same time, for the ones that have been living out here for years, they know it’s about time. It just sucks that they have to leave.


CLAUDINE: Yeah, Ms. Marie you think it’s time to go?


MARIE WEBB: Well, I ain’t ready, but I ain’t got no choice!


HOST: Marie Webb has lived the majority of her life in this public housing row home, and the whole time she’s kept a tidy yard overflowing with plants and flowers that mean the world to her.


MARIE WEBB: Love my yard! I love it!


HOST: Now in her late 80’s, her whole life is being thrown into upheaval.


CLAUDINE: You not so happy about it?


MARIE WEBB: No, cuz of my flowers, but, no.


MARQUITTA: Lord, don’t make her cry. Look at her, don’t …


CLAUDINE: Oh no, I didn’t, no, I didn’t …


HOST: That encounter? That is going to stick with me.


CLAUDINE: Ms. Marie, thank you for your time.


MARIE WEBB: Thank y’all too.


HOST: Another powerful moment came for me in South Carolina when we learned about Heirs property rights where families, like that of Richard Habersham, have passed their homes down to their heirs since their ancestors were freed from slavery.


RICHARD HABERSHAM: Most of the family is still here. They haven’t left.


CLAUDINE: So this land has been passed down in your family since 18 …




CLAUDINE: Since 1878.




HOST: Heirs property status has for years helped Black communities like Richard’s retain their land. But now the lack of formal legal status could be their undoing, in part because FEMA excludes heirs properties from flood recovery programs. As development booms on nearby wetlands, diverting more water to Richard’s land, it’s clear that his community will bear a disproportionate burden.


RICHARD: They didn’t think about where’s that waters going at, how it going to affect us. So they really didn’t care! You know, if you have environmental justice, they would have had to keep all that water, all the you know traffic and everything in their neighborhood. Where’s the justice?


HOST: As communities in the Southeast navigate their way through storms and rising floodwaters, the mistakes of our past will undoubtedly be revealed. Much in the same way that the creeks, streams and rivers that we’ve filled in are slowly showing themselves again. What we found over this last year has been eye opening. All the people we met are committed to dealing with sea level rise. They have to be, they are living it. Talking with these folks, I get it now. There IS a way forward and it requires atoning for past mistakes — like, letting the rivers, creeks and wetlands that we filled in return to their natural state. It means embracing green solutions that let storm waters in rather than building walls to keep them out. And as we’ve heard from these stories, it means acknowledging that sea level rise is going to have a disproportionate impact on Black communities and people that don’t have the means to pick up and move. We owe it to a lot of people to make thoughtful decisions as our seas rise around us.




HOST: That’s it for this season of Broken Ground. If you’ve enjoyed listening, please rate and review our podcast. If this is your first episode, we hope you’ll go back and listen to this and other seasons of Broken Ground. And if you haven’t already subscribed, please do. That way you’ll be the first to know when we’re back. And If you have story ideas or are interested in supporting the podcast in upcoming seasons, please reach out to us through our website at Broken Ground Podcast dot org. And you can support and learn more about the Southern Environmental Law Center at Southern Environment dot org. Thanks for listening.


CREDITS/PAIGE: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Paige Polk, Kelley Libby, Jennie Daley, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid-McElwain. Our theme music is by Eric Knutson.