The Gullah/Geechee people are descendants of Africans who have created a unique culture with deep African roots that are clearly visible in their distinctive arts, crafts, food, music, and language, especially here in the Lowcountry. Their unique location on a sea island has allowed their heritage and community to prosper for centuries. But it’s this same geographic location that is presenting itself to be challenging, as they continue to face mother nature’s overtures. She continues to knock at their door, testing their continued resiliency.
Saint Helena Island is home to the largest Gullah/Geechee community within the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, established by Congress in 2006. The increased risk of extreme weather events, storm surges, and sea-level rise continues to threaten the ancestral lands and heritage of the Gullah/Geechee community that has inhabited these islands for generations.
The Charleston District has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and several other state and local agencies for a non-structural flood management project known as the Floodplain Management Services and Silver Jackets Sustainable Coastline Guidebook for St. Helena. The project began October 1, 2022, and initiated when the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Silver Jackets joined forces in developing educational and outreach materials on mitigating the effects of erosion forces to this unique community.
Lindsey LaRocque is the project coordinator and Silver Jackets lead for the District and said the project goal is to create a sustainable coastline guidebook that the community can utilize to create a plan for implementing living shoreline and salt marsh preservation measures along the public and private lands surrounding Saint Helena.
Silver Jackets are an inter-agency team that facilitates collaborative solutions to state flood risk priorities and floodplain management and are an integral part in contributing to the project’s success by introducing valuable partners and meaningful information to the St. Helena community.
According to Charleston District hydraulic engineer, LaRocque, “it made sense for us to become partners since we had an existing project we wanted to build upon, specifically focusing on nonstructural measures for flood protection.”
“The project team really listened and worked closely with the community to produce educational materials that could help promote sustainability and resiliency across Saint Helena Island and the Gullah/Geechee community,” said William Drew Parker, EPA geographer and project member.
USACE and EPA started building a stakeholder list of local, state, and non-profit organizations to engage with during project kick-off meetings. The stakeholders met in person to conduct a site visit with community leaders, to see examples of challenges faced during coastal storms and extreme weather and to hear about beneficial ways to communicate potential risks to the community. These meetings would help shape the direction of the project and get it to where it is today.
According to Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, this guidebook will help their community better understand what can often be seen as complex scientific topics.
“Once people understand what is happening, they are more apt to adapt and to act,” she said. “We want to increase the knowledge of community members so that they can make informed decisions about protecting and sustaining our coast and thereby improving coastal health and safety which includes not only the environment, but also the public health.”
According to Parker, the Gullah/Geechee community has been engaged from the very beginning, guiding the project team to provide meaningful educational and outreach resources that community leaders can use to promote sea level rise and coastal resiliency.
Members of the Sustainable Coastline Guidebook for St. Helena project team attended the Coastal Cultures Conference: Sea Island Cultural Heritage Sustainability, held March 31 – April 2. The conference was a public event and interagency team members, comprised of EPA and Beaufort County, were in attendance to disseminate the information (posters, business cards, and placemats with descriptions) that was developed through this project.
“I have truly enjoyed working with this Charleston team, especially Dennis Franklin,” said Quet, referring to the district’s graphic designer.” He did an outstanding job on the placemats and posters. “Lindsey is also a problem solver and was consistently responsive and I truly appreciate her professionalism,” she added.
“This project provides the possibility to inspire action toward implementing solutions that benefit both the people and the land they are historically tied to. The community hopes to leverage these resources when applying to future grant opportunities for priority projects that support a community-wide nature-based resiliently strategy,” said Parker.
For the Gullah/Geechee Nation, it’s about survival.
“This project means life to the Gullah/Geechee Nation. If we are able to sustain our land and heal our waters, we will be able to sustain our cultural heritage,” said Quet.