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 in the South Carolina 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.
St. Helena Island is home to the largest Gullah/Geechee community along the southeastern U.S. coast. The increased risk of extreme weather events, storm surges, and sea-level rise continues to threaten their ancestral lands and heritage that have inhabited these islands for generations.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Charleston District has partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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 Oct. 1, 2022, and initiated when the EPA, USACE, 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, the project coordinator and Silver Jackets lead for the district, explained 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 interagency team that facilitates collaborative solutions to state flood risk priorities and floodplain management, and 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 St. Helena Island and the Gullah/Geechee community,” said William Drew Parker, EPA geographer and project member.
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.
“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 [LaRocque] 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 can sustain our land and heal our waters, we will be able to sustain our cultural heritage,” said Quet.