Now we know what a 4-foot storm surge looks like.
And sea-level rise.
We were taught by a storm called Irma — one of the mightiest hurricanes ever recorded as it swirled across the Atlantic Ocean. But she was a mere tropical storm when its outer bands whipsawed Beaufort County on a king tide in the gray daylight Monday.
Irma had been a long-running horror show, with a number of computers spitting out full-color “spaghetti models” pointed right at us. We assumed it would do to us what we now see it did to the Virgin Islands and Key West.
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Even when it veered westward, we remained vulnerable.
In our flat, low-lying county full of islands, “storm surge” has been a fear since 20-foot waves from a hurricane here in 1893 left little but live oaks standing — and 2,000 people dead.
We usually see these surges on maps flooded with fiery red warnings of what neighborhoods will be under water in each category of hurricane.
With Irma, we traded maps for boots. She showed us firsthand what happens when a 4-foot surge roars atop of an 8-foot high tide.
This is when Mike Sutton rides a motor boat through the streets of The Point in Beaufort. It’s when the 18th hole at Harbour Town would be played in a wetsuit, and when the Hunting Island Lighthouse stands offshore.
It’s when a tropical storm might as well be a Category 5 hurricane to some homeowners in the Alljoy Landing area of Bluffton.
It’s when slowly rising water creeps to the door of First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, a wood-frame witness to the throes of our history for more than a century.
It’s when mountains of sand that cost millions to pump on our shifting shoreline disappear in an hour.
It’s when something we consider as basic to life as a sanitary sewer system spits and sputters in low places.
It’s when we grasp the power of life’s umbilical cord — electricity.
It’s when we recognize the value of the least sexy spending by our governments — drainage and stormwater management.
For most of us, Irma was a gentle reminder of the harsh side of life in the Lowcountry.
For many, its greatest downside was the hassle and expense of evacuating, and those Georgia love bugs we brought home stuck to our windshields and bumpers.
The storm, like Hurricane Matthew just 11 months ago, brought out the best in us. We dropped the bickering. We shared. We put our arms around evacuees from Florida, some of them virtually penniless, as they ambled north, and then back south, through Jasper County.
But the storm also brought up two topics we never like to face: insurance and sea-level rise.
America’s flood insurance program is broken, and making it solvent in this era of $200 billion storms will be outrageously expensive. Remember, there is a reason the private sector won’t write all that flood insurance, and the government-subsidized rates we are paying are unrealistically low. If that changes, Lowcountry residents are in for major sticker shock.
Especially when you consider the explosion of new homes and businesses flooding vulnerable places like Beaufort County and Charleston — and the entire outer rim of America.
Not long ago, people built simple cottages on stilts in flood zones. Now they build mansions. Across America, we fill wetlands and drain swamps, and then wonder why there’s water in the living room.
How much more can we as a nation, or as individuals, afford?
Already, wind and hail insurance premiums have risen so high that some people who own their homes risk losing it all with no insurance because they can’t afford it.
Sea-level rise is something else we don’t want to think about. But Irma gave us a peek at what it could look like.
Orrin Pilkey, the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has long been considered a prophet of doom in these parts for saying it’s foolish to build by the sea and think you can outwit it or outmuscle it.
He recently wrote: “The general consensus among scientists is that a 3-foot rise in sea level should be anticipated by 2100. But recent projections suggest a possible rise of five or six feet.”
Pilkey was urging coastal cities to prepare now because the politics and cost of it will make it a slow process.
He praised Charleston for adopting a strategy that assumes a 2.5-foot rise in sea level over the coming 50 years.
Irma’s legacy should be a harsh reality check for all of Beaufort County.