In Norfolk, evidence of climate change is in the streets at high tide

At high tide on the small inlet next to Norfolk’s most prestigious art museum, the water lapped at the very top of the concrete sea wall that has held it back for 100 years. It seeped up through storm drains, puddled on the promenade and spread, half a foot deep, across the street, where a sign read, “Road Closed.”

The sun was shining, but all around the inlet people were bracing for more serious flooding. The Chrysler Museum of Art had just completed a $24 million renovation that emptied the basement, now accessible only by ladder, and lifted the heating and air-conditioning systems to the top floor. A local accounting firm stood behind a homemade barricade of stanchions and detachable flaps rigged to keep the water out. And the congregation of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk was looking to evacuate.

“We don’t like being the poster child for climate change,” said the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who added that the building, with its carved-wood sanctuary and soaring flood-insurance rates, would soon be on the market for the first time in four decades. “I don’t know many churches that have to put the tide chart on their Web site” so people know whether they can get to church.

On May 6, the Obama administration released the third National Climate Assessment, and President Obama proclaimed climate change no longer a theory; its effects, he said, are already here. This came as no surprise in Norfolk, where normal tides have risen 11 / 2 feet over the past century and the sea is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast.

The more urgent question is what to do about it — and how to pay for it. For that, the White House has offered few answers.


Focused for much of his presidency on a politically contentious campaign to slow global warming by reducing carbon emissions, Obama has turned only recently to the matter of preparing the nation for effects that scientists say already are inevitable. Last year, the Government Accountability Office added climate change to its “high-risk” list, declaring that the lack of planning poses “significant financial risks” to the federal government, which funds flood and crop insurance, pays for disaster relief and owns hundreds of facilities exposed to rising seas.

Obama has ordered every agency to start planning for climate change, but administration officials acknowledge that the process is in its infancy. Meanwhile, there is no new money to help hard-hit places such as Norfolk, where residents are clamoring for relief.

Norfolk exists because of the sea. Ships have been built in its harbors since the Revolutionary War. It is home to the largest naval base on the globe. Bounded by the Chesapeake Bay and two rivers, sliced by coastal creeks, Norfolk has always been vulnerable to flooding. But over the past decade, people began noticing alarming trends.

Hurricanes and nor’easters became more frequent and more damaging. Even ordinary rainstorms swamped intersections, washed away parked cars and marooned the region’s major medical center. Before 1980, the inlet near the Chrysler Museum, known as the Hague, had never flooded for more than 100 hours in a year. By 2009, it was routinely flooded for 200 and even 300 hours a year.

The city hired a Dutch consulting firm to develop an action plan, finalized in 2012, that called for new flood gates, higher roads and a retooled storm water system. Implementing the plan would cost more than $1 billion — the size of the city’s entire annual budget — and protect Norfolk from about a foot of additional water.

As the city was contemplating that enormous price tag, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) last year delivered more bad news: If current trends hold, VIMS scientists said, by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 51 / 2 feet or more.

“Clearly, we’ve got more work to do,” said Ron Williams Jr., Norfolk’s assistant city manager for planning.

Options for dealing with the water are limited, and expensive. The city could protect itself with more barriers. Williams lamented, for instance, that a new $318 million light-rail system — paid for primarily with federal funds -- was built at sea level. With a little foresight, he said, the tracks could have been elevated to create a bulwark against the tides.

As it stands, the new rail system could itself be swept away, the money wasted. “Nowhere do we have resiliency built in,” he said.

A second option calls for people to abandon the most vulnerable parts of town, to “retreat somewhat from the sea,” as Mayor Paul D. Fraim put it in a 2011 interview, when he became the first sitting politician in the nation to raise the prospect.

For now, Williams said, retreat is not on the table “on a large scale,” though “you may look at localized hot spots.” The Dutch consultants, Fugro Atlantic, recommended buying out properties in Spartan Village, a bowl-shaped neighborhood that flooded during a rainstorm in 2009.

That leaves the third option: adaptation. Raising buildings, roads and other critical infrastructure. Last fall, the city council required all new structures to be built three feet above flood level, one of the strictest standards in the state.

“People right now are having trouble getting their arms around what needs to be done. And no one can fathom what it’s going to cost,” said City Councilwoman Theresa Whibley, who represents many pricey waterfront neighborhoods, including the Hague, where the plan calls for floodgates to block the surging tide.

“When we’re talking about floodgates and building bulkheads, then you’re talking about the big bucks that even the feds don’t have. And then you’re competing with New York, Miami — even Hampton.” Whibley paused. “I don’t sound very optimistic, do I?”

The problem is particularly urgent in Norfolk and the rest of Tidewater Virginia — which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ranked second only to New Orleans in terms of population threatened by sea-level rise — due to a fateful convergence of lousy luck. First, the seas are generally rising as the planet warms. Second, the Gulf Stream is circulating more slowly, causing more water to slosh toward the North Atlantic coast. In 2012, the U.S. Geological Survey declared a 600-mile stretch of coastline, from North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras to Boston, a “sea-level rise hotspot,” with rates increasing at three to four times the global average.

Third, the land around Norfolk is sinking, a phenomenon called “subsidence,” due in part to continuing adjustments in the earth’s crust to the melting of glaciers from the last ice age. Plus, the city is slowly sinking into the crater of a meteor that slammed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay 35 million years ago.

Put it all together, as VIMS scientists did when they were asked by the General Assembly to study recurrent flooding in tidewater Virginia, and models suggest tides ranging from 11 / 2 feet to 71 / 2 feet higher by 2100.

Five and a half feet represents “business as usual,” a vision of the future without “significant efforts by the world’s nations to curb greenhouse gases,” the report said. “Recent trends in Virginia sea levels suggest we are on [this] curve.”

Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer who is co-director of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University, said when the mayor was asked about the report, he waved away the question. “He says, ‘I can’t think about five feet. What do you want me to do, move the whole city?’ ”

It’s not just Norfolk, Atkinson said. Much of the Eastern Shore would be underwater; Baltimore and Washington would be in trouble, too. “At five feet,” he said, “the Mall’s flooded.”

Driving around town, Atkinson and his colleague Michelle Covi recently pointed out dozens of places where water regularly fills the streets, keeping people from work. “By 2040, this will be flooded every high tide,” Atkinson said as he drove north on Hampton Boulevard. “That means the main road to the Navy base will be impassable two to three hours a day.”

Atkinson pulled in to O’Sullivan’s Wharf, a bar with a back deck overlooking Knitting Mill Creek. Over hush puppies and beer, he and Covi fretted about Superfund sites along the Elizabeth River. The toxic muck has been capped, but they wondered: Is the Environmental Protection Agency looking into what might happen when the water rises?

“Even landfills could be a problem,” Covi said. “I’d think they would float. Just pop up and float away.”

At a nearby table, Atkinson spotted Deborah Miller, a retired graphic designer at Old Dominion, and her husband, Gary Chiaverotti, a retired Navy captain. The couple is among Norfolk’s earliest adapters. In 2008, after filing flood-damage claims that cost the federal government more than $100,000, they agreed to let the Federal Emergency Management Agency add about four feet to the foundation of their small house on Haven Creek.

“We didn’t have to take anything out. The man said, ‘Nothing will move,’ and it didn’t,” Miller said. “My china and crystal all stayed in the china cabinet.”

FEMA paid 95 percent of the $140,000 bill. The house no longer floods, Miller said, a huge relief. But water still swamps the property, and the couple has filed additional claims for damage to the garage.

The city keeps a list of nearly 250 people who are either awaiting FEMA help or hoping to qualify for the program. But money is tight and elevation is no cure-all.

Not far from Miller’s house, FEMA raised three small homes on an inlet off the Lafayette River. The city spent $1 million more to raise the roadbed and restore a small wetland. After all that effort, Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, has before and after photos showing that the road still floods, though a little less aggressively.

“Would it have made more sense to buy these people out?” Stiles said, adding that the city doesn’t have the money to do that, either. “It’s hard to figure out how you get out of this.”

At City Hall, the answer is more federal help. Williams, the assistant city manager, said he has met with officials at the White House, seeking a formal process to assess risks in various parts of the country and develop criteria for making federal investments so that, he said, “it’s not political.” The White House has named a task force of state and local officials to make recommendations this fall on how best to advance “climate preparedness and resilience.” Williams sees that as a positive sign.

“The White House gets it,” he said.

But in this age of austerity, even the Pentagon struggles to get its needs met. At Naval Station Norfolk, sea-level rise prompted a decision in the late 1990s to raise the station’s 12 piers, said Joe Bouchard, base commander at the time. Construction has since been completed on only four, he said, adding that work was halted in 2008, when the recession hit, the federal budget deficit soared and Congress began frantically slashing spending.

“That’s when Washington went bonkers,” said Bouchard, an expert on the national security implications of climate change. “That’s spelled B-O-N-K-E-R-S, if you want to quote me.”

The city is also looking to federal officials to help the Unitarian Church if no one steps forward to buy its property, which is assessed at $1.8 million. Williams said the city cannot use “the people’s purse to buy every property that’s vulnerable,” but he raised the possibility of a FEMA buyout.

FEMA, however, typically has limits on what it can spend, and Slade, the minister at the church, worries whether a buyout would produce enough cash to purchase property on higher ground.

“There really are no good answers, because the only answers are unacceptable,” Slade said. “The right answer is to give this space back to nature. But this is the most historic part of Norfolk.”

Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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