Norfolk officials have made clear that they can't handle the problem alone. "This is not the sort of thing you'd normally deal with when you're a mayor. The notion that we would try to get our hands around how [to] hold the rivers and the ocean and the bay back and protect [our] city is pretty unique," Mayor Paul Fraim said in a PBS documentary broadcast in April. "We think there's shared responsibility between the local governments, the state government, and the federal government."
For now, what most Norfolk residents care about is getting flood insurance, if it's available, and quick reimbursement from FEMA for damages. "People are inherently reactive by nature. They wait for something to go wrong," said Poornima Madhavan, an assistant professor of psychology at Old Dominion University who studies human decision making and has conducted surveys in Norfolk to measure local understanding of sea level rise.
"You're up against the age-old problem of judging how bad it's going to get," she said. "There's a high degree of skepticism. Many people seem to think, 'If it stays like this, I can probably deal with it,' although scientists are warning that it's going to get much worse."
Things might be different if Virginia had acted on the shelved 2008 climate action plan, which called for state agencies to educate residents about causes and impacts of climate change and costs of taking action. The report also urged state agencies to factor sea level rise and storm surge predictions into transportation and infrastructure plans. It recommended revising local land use policies in coastal areas to minimize threats to lives and property, and called on the legislature to fund aerial laser mapping of the entire state, starting with the coast.
Without a state plan, however, community leaders have little incentive to think beyond their own jurisdictions. "There's a real need for more complex networks than exist right now," said Madhavan.
And while Norfolk may be forging ahead with armament and protective measures, only a regional strategy can help smaller Hampton Roads towns like the bedroom community of Poquoson, which fronts directly on the Chesapeake across from Norfolk, near Newport News and a NASA research center.
Nearly every house within a mile of Poquoson's waterfront marshes is elevated: older homes sit on cinder block or brick foundations, while newer houses are built a story off the ground with garages underneath. On one winding residential street a few blocks from bayside marshes, a sign shows waist-high water marks from storms in 2003 and 2009.
"Half the houses there flood during storms," said Hershner. "They're hemmed in by other towns, and they don't have the tax base to move. There's no engineering solution for them short of elevating every house."
DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service covering climate change. Contact editor Douglas Fischer at dfischer@DailyClimate.org