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Whatever You Call It, Sea Level Rises in Virginia

On the coast, where rising seas threaten military bases, ports, homes and beaches, flooding is on everyone's mind
Delmarva Peninsula



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NORFOLK, Va. - Water is inescapable in Virginia's second-largest city, home to the world's biggest naval base, three major port facilities and public and private shipyards. Norfolk is nearly surrounded by water: it sits at the mouth of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the junction of the Elizabeth and James Rivers. Canals and creeks penetrate into many neighborhoods, and home sale listings highlight water access - "Within 50 feet of H2O - You can canoe and kayak!".

Yet as much as water is a resource in Norfolk and the surrounding area, known as Hampton Roads, it also represents a threat.

City and county leaders, already burdened with typical tasks of local governance - zoning, construction permits, liquor licenses, school board appointments - are also weighing multi-million-dollar flood control projects to keep the ocean at a livable distance. While they struggle to pull together know-how and funding, those with the broader view and resources - state agencies -are absent from the discussions: In a study released earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked Virginia as one of 29 states that were "largely unprepared and lagging behind" on planning for climate change at the state level.

In many ways the problem is already upon Norfolk. The Atlantic Ocean off Virginia's coast is rising a quarter of an inch annually, equivalent to two feet in 100 years - faster than anywhere else in the United States except for coastal Louisiana. The ocean at Sewells Point, site of the Norfolk Naval Station, rose 14.5 inches between 1930 and 2010. And that's likely to accelerate. Last month the U.S. Geological Survey reported that sea levels are rising more quickly along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts than globally, possibly as a result of slowing Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns.

Planning for climate change is not a winning political platform in Virginia. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said in 2010 that "to what degree [climate change] is attributable to manmade causes is a matter I will leave up to the experts," and shelved a climate change action plan proposed by a commission under his Democratic predecessor. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made headlines in 2010 for investigating University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, and again this year for trying unsuccessfully to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

But whatever state leaders think of climate change, local officials find they can't ignore increasingly apparent street-level impacts.

Most of Norfolk is less than 15 feet above sea level, and low-lying neighborhoods already flood regularly when heavy rains combine with high tides, swamping storm-water systems. The worst flooding in memory happened in 1933, when a hurricane and five-foot storm surge left residents wading thigh-deep on downtown streets. If sea levels rise between two and five feet in the area by 2100, as recent studies predict, that could become routine. Even now, city maps show that the surge from a Category Three hurricane would inundate nearly the entire city.

In the wettest zones, streets are studded with "For Sale" signs. "I know people who can't find buyers for their houses," said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide advocacy group, on a drive through a historic neighborhood called The Hague. The area fronts on a canal and floods regularly. Telltale signs are easy to spot. Evaporating salt water leaves rusty stains on street curbs. Repeated overflows have killed grass in waterfront parks, leaving stretches of bare ground. Spartina, a salt-tolerant marsh grass, is sprouting on slopes above canals and marinas.

At the entrance to the Chrysler Museum of Art, which faces the estuary, Stiles paused. "There are usually ducks swimming around the front steps here after storms."

Last spring delegates from the Hampton Roads area sought money from the General Assembly to study how sea level rise could affect coastal Virginia. After Tea Party activists objected to spending money on climate science, the topic was changed to "recurrent flooding" and passed. Local officials hope the report will convince lawmakers to help communities pay for flood control projects. That won't happen until next year at the earliest, after state legislators review scientists' projections.

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.

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

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