Built on sinking ground, Norfolk tries to hold back tide amid sea-level rise
By Darryl Fears,
NORFOLK — At her cozy house by the river, Julie Faella spoke as though a monster lurks nearby. It rises under a tidal moon, she said, or when the winds howl, or when rains crash down.
She’s seen it with her own eyes. It crept under the front door of one house she owned when Hurricane Isabel whipped the Lafayette River into a frenzy in 2003, and invaded a second house three years later when a nor’easter churned the waters for days.
“Your home isn’t destroyed once. It’s destroyed twice,” said Faella, who tore down one house and rebuilt the other. “How are you going to get through it?”
In Norfolk, Virginia’s second-largest city, with 250,000 residents, Faella’s concerns aren’t the isolated fears of one woman living on the river’s edge. The entire city is worried. Miles of waterways that add to Norfolk’s charm are also a major threat in the era of increased global warming and relative rising sea levels, as well as its odd and unique sinking ground.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that Hampton Roads, anchored by Norfolk, is at the greatest risk from sea-level rise for a metro area its size, save for New Orleans.
City officials had sensed as much in recent years, after frequent massive flooding from soaking rains, storm surge and high tides, often affecting its most lucrative property tax base: high-value waterfront homes sitting in flood zones that ring the city.
Norfolk’s mayor said recently that the city might one day retreat from areas that constantly take on water and city officials are considering a plan to buy and condemn about 20 homes in Spartan Village, a flood-prone neighborhood near Norfolk State University. But the city is fighting back with a long-term strategy to protect property and roads that lead to the world’s largest naval base, shipyards and hospitals.
“Any idea that this area isn’t attractive because of these issues should be tossed aside,” said Ron Williams Jr., an assistant city manager who oversees the city’s infrastructure planning.
A guinea pig for the East Coast
Along the southeast coast, other cities in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Florida are monitoring Norfolk’s response to the flooding, knowing they could soon face similar challenges. Low-lying Gulf and Pacific coast cities are also watching.
Sea-level rise isn’t expected to significantly affect most American cities for at least 30 years. But Hampton Roads — including Virginia Beach and Portsmouth on Norfolk’s borders — is already knee-deep in floodwaters because, as one activist said, the area is “as flat as a pancake” and Chesapeake Bay river tributaries slice deeply inland.
Tides rise daily, but as the climate warms, seas have risen and pushed up the Chesapeake Bay around Norfolk a few inches each year, scientists said. In the spring tidal cycle, waters sometimes rise a foot or more above normal.
Worse, the ground is sinking in Tidewater, as Hampton Roads is also known. It sits in the nation’s largest known geologic impact crater, an Ice Age formation that’s causing land to drop about seven inches every century, accounting for about one-third of the sea-level change.
On top of that, homes in pricey communities such as Larchmont, where Faella lives, are built partially on slowly sinking historic wetlands.
“Water runs downhill, but here it has nowhere to go,” said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a nonprofit group devoted to preserving wetlands. “There’s all this water in neighborhoods. It’s just something people put up with. People have had to change their car brakes because they had saltwater in them.”
Pricey real estate in Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Hampton and other cities is also threatened, but Norfolk has so far taken stronger steps to prevent flooding than its neighbors, activists said.
Recently at the downtown Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, which juts into the Elizabeth River, the city hosted a nearly four-hour networking session of about 30 planners, engineers, educators and environmentalists to present the findings of flood preparation studies for which it paid tens of thousands of dollars.
A Dutch-based engineering firm, Fugro Atlantic, which studied the city’s vulnerability to high tides and storm surges, recommended floodwalls, tide gates, elevated roads and powerful water pumping stations at several areas at an estimated cost of $300 million.
A second firm, the Timmons Group, determined that major storms that once occurred every 10 years are coming more frequently, and most of the city’s aged storm water drains, built more than a century ago, could not handle runoff. Timmons recommended upgrading storm water pipes at a cost of up to $775 million.
Flooding sometimes happens when storm water flowing to rivers through inadequate pipes is pushed back by tidal surge invading land, said Liz Scheessele, a senior project manager for Timmons who gave that presentation.
Moving past short-term fixes
Norfolk has pieced together a flood response with a $6 million annual budget for storm water drains and water pumping stations, but Tom McNeilan, a Fugro vice president, firmly told officials that those Band-Aid fixes can no longer cover the wound.
The Fugro and Timmons studies are part of a strategy to ask state legislators and Congress for more than $1 billion for floodgates and other barriers to be built over the next 30 years.
It would be a huge outlay for such a small city, particularly in a state where lawmakers recently bowed to pressure from tea party political activists and refused to allow the words “sea level” and “climate change” in a recommendation for a study of their impact on the Virginia coast, according to the Virginian-Pilot. But Norfolk’s importance to Virginia and the nation is far greater than its size.
“Norfolk is the corporate, cultural and entertainment hub of the southern commonwealth,” with 100,000 commuters going in and out daily, Williams said. Its hospitals and two universities stand out in Hampton Roads.
The city is also home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, and many city residents work at the only shipyards in the nation capable of building aircraft carriers. Frequent flooding forces workers to turn away from those shipyards, some of which also modernize submarines.
Still, even if the money is granted, flood walls cannot protect every residence in every community, and some homeowners might find themselves on the wrong side of a closed wall when storm waters rise.
In a segment on the PBS program “Need to Know” that aired in April, Mayor Paul Fraim said Norfolk might have to establish retreat zones in “areas of the city that will contain water all the time” in the next 20 to 30 years.
Fraim did not respond to requests for comment about his remarks but said on the program that he was the first seated mayor in the nation to acknowledge that part of his city might need to be abandoned.
Area scientists and activists who watched the show described the interview as a bold truth. “You’re going to be subject to more flooding over the years,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which sits in a flood zone on a map drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In the long run, yes, all areas cannot be protected from flooding,” Atkinson said. “There might be federal buyouts of people, where people’s homes are bought and people are moved. It’s not a happy situation.”
Williams, however, disagreed, saying the currently proposed flood protections for an area called the Hague and Pretty Lake will guard all homes.
In the Larchmont area by the Lafayette River, where numerous “for sale” signs on white posts spring up in yards like mushrooms after every flood, Williams said more study is needed to determine how to protect homeowners.
Faella is not sure Larchmont can wait that long. She and her husband elevated their rebuilt house at a cost of about $25,000. Navigating the state and federal bureaucracy for a FEMA and Small Business Administration loan was a nightmare, she said.
The city needs to move decisively and “assess which neighborhoods it wants to save,” and which they have to abandon, she said.
“I wanted to stay in my house forever,” said Faella, “but the reality is that if you can’t get to your street, and you can’t sell your house, what are you going to do?”