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Norfolk moves ahead on sea wall project to protect against storms

Without the $1.8 billion initiative, the Army Corps of Engineers says much of the city would be at risk for flooding by 2075. But questions persist about its effectiveness and impact.

Tidal flooding fills the intersection of Olney Road and Boush Street in Norfolk on Monday. It floods there so often that locals refer to it as Lake Olney. (Jim Morrison for The Washington Post)
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NORFOLK — Norfolk’s downtown waterfront is a parade of people drawn to the water during a Friday lunch hour, some heading to a waiting cruise ship and others strolling to Town Point Park with its expansive view of the Elizabeth River, the shipyards and the city of Portsmouth across the water.

They stream through a portal in a concrete flood wall running along Waterside Drive that blends into the streetscape, a guardian that for 50 years has protected the city’s economic heart. But the combination of rising waters and stronger storms, along with sinking land, means the wall now falls short of providing the protection that the federal government demands.

To arm the city against those storms, Norfolk has entered the first phase of a $1.8 billion project being designed with the Army Corps of Engineers that features an existing 2,700-foot-long downtown wall raised by about five feet and extended to cover the minor league baseball stadium on the Elizabeth River. Over time, more barriers and other protections, including nearly eight miles of sea walls, levees and berms, will be extended along the city’s southern and western flanks on the Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers.

The corps says that without the project, all but a slender rectangle of the city’s interior would be at risk for flooding by 2075. The study estimates annual net benefits of $122 million by reducing storm damage and improving the city’s ability to rebound from a storm.

A 2015 corps study targeted Norfolk because waters are rising faster here than elsewhere in the country, putting the city at risk sooner. The corps later identified cities including Miami and Charleston, S.C., as facing existential threats. Those cities, pioneers in addressing the urban climate threat, are finding that protecting themselves from storm surges is more than a design and engineering problem. It is a complicated and evolving mix of science, social justice, urban planning and finance.

The design is moving ahead even as local officials, researchers and environmentalists raise questions about the project’s effectiveness in solving all the risks coastal cities face. “Part of the issue is whether or not a sea wall is the right place to start,” said Rob Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

The barriers don’t eliminate more recurrent risks, such as increasingly frequent high tide flooding and rainstorms that dump inches of precipitation in just hours. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, when winds pushed high tides, Norfolk closed the gate on its downtown flood wall, but intersections blocks away still flooded. The most expensive and extensive protections — sea walls and levees — end up shielding only the most valuable real estate and not the most vulnerable people, studies show.

“So we build a sea wall, and if it’s still flooding weeks out of the year, have we solved the right problem?” Young said. “What is going to be the most disruptive to the long-term economic viability of our community? Is it the next storm? Or is it long-term sea level rise and the failure of our storm-water handling system and rain bombs that cause flooding in areas that are disconnected from the harbor?”

Young and others say the cost-benefit model used by the corps, which focuses on property values, needs to be modified.

“There are real economic justice and racial justice problems with the way they do their economic analysis,” he said. “What the corps is saying is that the only thing Americans value for their tax dollars is property values. I hope we value historical and cultural importance and maintaining community. I hope we value so many other things — recreational benefits, ecosystem benefits.”

The corps plan calls for Norfolk’s minority Southside neighborhoods on the Elizabeth River to be protected with natural solutions such as living shorelines planted with grasses and reefs, as well as elevating 750 homes.

“I think we need to be very open and very clear [if] that’s the policy direction we want to go in,” Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander said during a city council meeting in late May where the corps presented its conceptual plan. “I think that’s a conversation that we need to have in this council if there’s not going to be any structural protection for the Southside.”

What gets protected and how is determined through a cost-benefit analysis the corps is required to use. Generally, it focuses on reducing damage to property today and in the future. Michelle Hamor, planning chief of the corps’ Norfolk District, said the cost-benefit analysis for the Norfolk sea wall did not support building hard structures to protect those shorelines. A plan to buy out hundreds of homes in those neighborhoods has been paused pending an evaluation in the context of the Biden administration’s environmental justice directive, she said.

Norfolk council members also are concerned about a levee along Town Point Park blocking the view of the water. Alexander suggested creating an elevated park.

Kyle Spencer, Norfolk’s chief resilience officer, said the city will work with the corps to look at removing the street and creating a waterfront park with a view.

“It does create a challenge,” he said, noting that buses drop off passengers at the cruise terminal and the city holds numerous festivals in the park. “So the feasibility has got to be looked at with all the factors included, not just flooding.”

The effect of waterfront walls and decisions about which neighborhoods to protect are just some of the issues facing cities like Norfolk threatened by climate change. Research in recent years has shown that building walls along some waterfronts deflects the water elsewhere, causing damage. Barriers like one across the mouth of the Lafayette River, which is proposed for Norfolk, alter the hydrology of ecosystems. That creates the potential for water quality problems when the barriers prevent tidal flushing, trapping nutrients and creating kill zones for marine life.

Environmental groups have called for more use of natural defenses. Recent studies have shown that in some places, nature-based solutions such as wetlands, reefs and restoring the natural flow of rivers are more economical and offer additional benefits like improving water quality and blunting storm surges. Hamor, however, said there is limited opportunity in Norfolk, a city built out 97 percent.

Then there is the money. Localities are responsible for 35 percent of the funding, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. The first phase of the Norfolk plan will cost more than $600 million, with the city required to contribute more than $200 million to get the federal share. Local leaders, including council members, say the city will need help from the state to raise that money.

For cities like Norfolk, the next big storm is an existential threat. Doing nothing is not an option. Andria P. McClellan, a Norfolk council member who has made environmental, equity and flooding concerns among her priorities, said the city can’t afford to push the start too far down the road.

“I think that tension exists between making it perfect and getting it done,” she said. “At some point, we have to pick a design and move forward.”

“I am certain the solution won’t be perfect,” she added. “But it will be better than what we have currently.”

The sea walls, levees and natural solutions planned for Norfolk and the other cities will not eliminate flooding from storms or increasingly frequent high tides. A recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted that Norfolk had 15 days of high tide flooding in 2021, up from five in 2000. By 2050, Norfolk could see 85 to 125 days of high tide flooding.

Norfolk City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer acknowledged that the corps’ project is only a partial answer.

“This doesn’t take care of rain events. It doesn’t take care of water quality issues. We have all of those things we also are going to need to think about, and those may take and require other sources of funding, including our own capital projects,” he said.

The walls may also create problems elsewhere, according to emerging research. Modeling studies looking at the San Francisco Bay and the Chesapeake Bay concluded that erecting walls along a portion of the shoreline would deflect water and cause flooding. The California studies concluded that walls along some sections of the bay could cause flooding as far as 60 miles away and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, often in disadvantaged communities. The Chesapeake Bay study found that walls along the lower portion of the bay would amplify the storm surge from a hurricane in the densely populated upper portions in places such as Baltimore and Annapolis.

The walls protecting downtown Norfolk are likely to deflect storm surge across the Elizabeth River to the vulnerable, largely minority neighborhoods of Berkley and Campostella and the city of Portsmouth, said Ming Li, a professor at the University of Maryland who has modeled the effects of using walls along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline.

“If you protect one segment of the coastline, you’re going to push water away to other places,” Li said.

The corps did not consult with the nearby cities of Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach about the effects of a downtown wall. With limited funding for the feasibility study, the focus was on Norfolk, said Aaron Edmonson, the engineering and construction chief for the Norfolk District. Edmonson and Spencer, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the deflected water will dissipate into the Atlantic Ocean and the bay, but the corps will examine the issue.

Other localities are navigating the Army Corps of Engineers process. Miami-Dade County last year rejected a $4.8 billion conceptual plan by the corps. Developers were concerned about a wall as high as 20 feet lowering real estate values and separating neighborhoods, and environmentalists were concerned about the effects on the Biscayne Bay, already threatened by pollution. While the plan included elevating homes and businesses, making sewer plants and fire and police stations more resilient, and adding natural defenses by planting mangroves, opponents also said it didn’t do enough to stem flooding from high tides and other symptoms of the climate crisis. The city and the corps are working on a new plan.

Charleston’s $1.1 billion project would wrap a wall ranging from three feet high to 11 feet high about eight miles around the downtown peninsula. Tidal gates would close during storm surges and open to drain rainwater with help from pumps during normal rain events. While the design is moving along, some council members wanted a solution that addressed not only storm surge, but also the increasing flooding from high tides blocking some key arteries in the city.

Mayor John J. Tecklenburg noted that legislation passed by the Senate and expected to be passed by the House, the Shoreline Health Oversight, Restoration, Resilience and Enhancement (SHORRE) Act, would give the corps more leeway to include protections against tidal flooding, extreme rainfall and sea level rise in projects.

“This is an existential threat long term for our city,” he said. “If you look out 50 to 100 years, and the impacts that storm surge and other flood risks have on our city, either we need to do something like this, or start planning on moving to Asheville.”

“And I’m not the guy that wants to move there,” he said of the North Carolina mountains.

Young, with Western Carolina University, said there needs to be a national conversation about where to spend billions on shoreline protection.

“We’re just acting as if we can hold every inch of U.S. shoreline in place, for forever, including places like Norfolk and Charleston that are built on marshes,” he added. “The United States needs its own coastal master plan so that we’re not wasting federal money in places that we will ultimately walk away from. That’s where the real failure is. We have no recognition of the national scope of this problem.”

A caption that was previously on a photo in this story incorrectly referred to the location of a flooded area in Norfolk as Lake Olney. The photo shows the intersection of Olney Road and Boush Street. The area floods so often that locals refer to it as Lake Olney. The caption has been corrected.