Regional commander describes what’s next for Charleston peninsula study

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District
Published Dec. 3, 2021
Updated: Dec. 3, 2021
Man stands next to microphone pedestal addressing others

Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic Division commanding general, addresses Charleston's city council Nov. 9, 2021 to discuss the federal study, design and construction process.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer in the southeast recently paid a visit to the City of Charleston to address the City Council about the agency’s ongoing study into coastal storm risk on the peninsula and provide city leaders with a clear path through the federal study, design and construction process.

The visit occurred weeks after the Charleston Peninsula Coastal Storm Risk Management Study wrapped up a 45-day public comment period on its draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement, which detailed the study’s analysis since it kicked off in 2018.

Led by Charleston District, the four-year federal feasibility study recommends three integrated measures to reduce storm surge risk on the peninsula: a perimeter storm surge wall, living shorelines and nonstructural measures. 

If implemented, the proposed plan —estimated at $1.1 billion — would be cost-shared with the City of Charleston, the nonfederal sponsor, and yields a benefit-cost ratio of 11-to-1. In other words, the project expects to save $10 in prevented coastal storm damages for every federal dollar invested.

During the brief visit, Brig. Gen. Jason Kelly, commanding general, South Atlantic Division, highlighted the agency’s emphasis on continued transparency and its role as a neutral federal entity.

“As the study approaches the final stretch, I want to discuss where we go, what’s next, and what are we going to do when the study phase concludes. We are an impartial party, but I also want to make sure that we share our experience and perspective on what can lead to project success, should this project be authorized and appropriated.”

Kelly, who oversees USACE operations across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Caribbean and portions of Central and South America also underscored the importance of comprehensive problem-solving and resilient partnerships as the area faces more frequent, destructive storms.

“On the coastal storm risk front, USACE is united with the City in our quest to deal with powerful storms, increasing costs, costs that are outpacing budgets, sea-level rise, and a very interested and rightfully vocal public.”

Across the region, Kelly’s division leads more than 20 studies and construction efforts designed to examine or enhance coastal resiliency for at-risk communities. The studies and efforts make up an unprecedented workload of $4.4 billion, all funded by federal supplemental disaster relief bills passed in 2018 and 2019.

Recently, the largest of these efforts, the South Atlantic Coastal Study, ranked the Charleston Peninsula Study as the top regional design and construction priority for the southeast. Spread across 60,000 miles of coastline from North Carolina to Mississippi, the SACS uses comprehensive, collaborative analysis to identify actionable and sustainable efforts that promote coastal resiliency across the region.

“This is a big deal,” Kelly said. “There’s a financial measure that indicates this project is not just effective in terms of engineering numbers, and that’s the project’s benefit-cost-ratio of 11-to-1. This project isn’t just an investment for Charleston, it’s an investment in the nation.”

Currently, the Charleston Peninsula study team is reviewing public and agency comments from the most recent comment period. The team is scheduled to submit the study’s final report to the USACE Chief of Engineers in late spring of 2022. To progress to the Pre-Engineering and Design (PED) phase, USACE and the city would need to execute a design agreement and the study would need congressional authorization, as well as the phase’s non-federal sponsor coast-share requirements.

Kelly, who previously commanded a district that oversaw the study and design of a similar coastal storm management project in Norfolk, Va., described the overall PED process and what the City can expect, should the study move forward.

“PED is project-specific. It will allow the entire project team to more closely examine details such as alignment,” Kelly said. “We are going to have boundaries, there will be guardrails, but I’m confident there’s sufficient space for us to find common ground and push the project forward.”

It is important to strike a balance between designs that both fit the fabric of the city and are backed by strong engineering, said Kelly.

“The technical performance of the recommended plan is this project’s holy grail. It is of the utmost importance. I’m an engineer, so I’m interested in making sure what we offer is the necessary solution. It can be pretty, but it’s also got to be good. That’s what our engineers are going to offer.”

If ultimately constructed, the study’s proposed plan would represent just one component of the City’s overall flood management plan. The project would primarily address coastal storm surge and would work in conjunction with other flood mitigation efforts.

“The City of Charleston is doing the work,” said Kelly. “It has an existing comprehensive flood mitigation plan. What we offer is complementary. The scope of the study reduces the risk of coastal storm surge inundation, but it can, and should, be integrated with what’s already underway.”

Perhaps most important, Kelly said, is the teamwork and heavy community involvement that serve as cornerstones for all phases of federal projects.

“We have to remain arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder. We’ve got to do this together.”