The long-term average rate of sea-level rise in Hampton Roads is about one foot per century, but that pace has accelerated sharply recently, which makes it challenging to gauge future rates of change.
This question has become a political issue in other coastal states - notably North Carolina, where the state's Coastal Resources Commission issued a report, based on the latest computer models, advising coastal communities to plan for up to 39 inches of sea sea-level rise by 2100, well beyond historic norms. North Carolina's Republican-majority legislature, backed by developers, initially barred the commission from planning on anything beyond historic rates of change, then compromised by telling commissioners to study the issue for four more years before developing a new model for sea-level rise.
Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the College of William and Maryís Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a lead author of the "recurrent flooding" study, is less concerned about the turmoil next door in North Carolina. Firsthand evidence from southeast Virginia offers sufficient justification for the sea-level-rise predictions, he said. "We're somewhere over the historic trend line already. The changes we're seeing just over 20 years are more than enough cause for real concern."
Area residents don't talk much about climate change, but there's plenty of concern about flooding. "People in Norfolk are getting wet, and they want solutions, not arguments," said Stiles. "We've collected all kinds of anecdotal but compelling stories about damage from repeated flooding. People tell us about places where they used to go duck hunting that are under water now, or big trees near the shoreline that have died from salt water intrusion. That's more convincing to local officials than a U.N. climate study or a Nature article."
Also convincing: Major insurance companies like Allstate, Nationwide, and State Farm have quietly stopped writing new policies in many zones near shore, says Wetlands Watch. Most of Norfolk's waterfront lies in areas that the Federal Emergency Management Agency designates as 100-year flood zones - i.e., that have a one percent chance of flooding yearly [PDF]. Owners there can buy coverage from the National Flood Insurance Program. But that may not be a long-term solution. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has classified the federal flood insurance program as "high risk" since 2006, warning that the program - which borrowed billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury to pay claims after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 - is financially unstable.
In the end, planners say, small fixes won't be enough to protect Hampton Roads communities from devastating flooding. Norfolk is luckier than most of its neighbors: The city's large federal facilities may help it secure federal funding for flood control, and city officials have ambitious plans. Norfolk is spending more than $27 million this year on culverts, restored shorelines and street curbs to channel water and improve drainage.
Studies commissioned by the city have recommended more than $140 million in larger projects for just four neighborhoods, including floodgates and pumping systems. This spring Norfolk secured some planning money from the Army Corps of Engineers, after local officials organized a bus tour to convince the Corps that their flooding problems were serious. Last month Congress directed the Corps to work with Norfolk on a citywide study of flooding issues.
But several years of feasibility studies and environmental impact reports await. And the federal cash that Norfolk hopes to secure will require roughly a 35 percent match. "By the time the state catches up, hopefully there will be a fund ... to offset some of the match requirements," Bryan Pennington, Norfolk's intergovernmental relations director, told the city council earlier this year. That will depend on whether the Virginia Institute study convinces state legislators that the region's communities need help.