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.