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As Norfolk weighs storm protection plan, Black residents want more say

The $2.6 billion plan would shield the city from storms and hurricanes. But aspects of the plan have angered some.

The Berkley neighborhood in Norfolk, where some residents worry their area would not get enough attention in a proposed storm protection plan. (Jim Morrison for The Washington Post)
9 min

NORFOLK — Kim Sudderth went to a meeting of community leaders from the city’s low-income, largely Black Southside last week to hear about the $2.6 billion plan to protect Norfolk from storms and hurricanes.

She left seeing red.

A representative of Norfolk’s Office of Resilience explained that the neighborhood on the south side of the Elizabeth River would be protected by natural shorelines planted with grasses and raising homes. On the river’s north side, the wealthier neighborhoods downtown would benefit from miles of flood walls, berms and levees under the plan designed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Everyone else gets some level of protection from the big one,” said Sudderth, a city planning commissioner and resident of Berkley, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “We get some plants and our basements filled and our houses raised. It’s insulting. It’s disappointing. It made me very, very sad.”

Norfolk’s City Council postponed a vote Tuesday on whether to sign a partnership agreement with the Corps for the plan, a decade in the making, after Mayor Kenneth Alexander pulled it from the agenda, saying there had not been sufficient community engagement.

Several Southside residents, including Sudderth, spoke during the public comment time after the meeting, saying they supported barriers for other neighborhoods but wanted the same protection for their community. Speakers called on the city to press the Army Corps to follow President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, known as EJ40, which requires 40 percent of benefits to flow to disadvantaged communities, to fund barriers for their neighborhoods. Several people in the audience held “EJ40” signs.

Alexander said after the meeting that a vote on the partnership agreement was not rescheduled but could come as early as March 28. It would obligate the city for a local share of $931 million and outline the basics of the design, which would be implemented in four phases over a decade. It also would free $399 million of federal money to complete the design of the first phase and begin construction in early 2024.

Norfolk moves ahead on sea wall project to protect against storms

While Southside Norfolk residents are upset about the walls they’re not getting, others across the river are concerned about the walls they are getting. The dilemma the city faces is whether to move ahead with a plan some see as imperfect and address the concerns of some neighborhoods and city council members later.

During a briefing before the city council Feb. 28, Alexander repeated concerns he raised in May about the design of a wall along a downtown park and the effect on the vitality of the waterfront. Courtney Doyle, a council member who represents wealthier neighborhoods on the city’s west side, asked about the heights of walls and said she wanted to see a design “which is heralding our beautiful waterfront and not compromising that in any way.”

Kyle Spencer, the city’s chief resilience officer and the liaison with the Corps, told the council that he didn’t have answers because only the first part of the first phase of the plan had been designed in detail. Further design of the walls downtown and the natural solutions on the Southside wouldn’t begin until the partnership agreement was signed and the federal dollars began flowing, he added.

Since the design for the plan began in 2019, the price has risen to $2.6 billion from $1.3 billion, increasing the 35 percent local share to $931 million. Norfolk plans to split that cost with the state. But bills in the General Assembly this year to provide Norfolk with $40 million for the project did not get out of committee.

Sudderth supports protecting Norfolk and understands there’s no turning away the federal funds. Nevertheless, she added: “I don’t want the rest of the city to say, ‘Oh, look at the Southside and how they ruined it. I’m saying let’s slow down and make sure that we apply equity to these decisions.’”

Property values in her neighborhood are depressed as a result of redlining decades ago, according to John Finn, an associate professor in geography at Christopher Newport University who has done extensive research mapping the issue. Sudderth pointed out that elevating homes may present problems for the neighborhood’s elderly residents who will have to climb stairs. “One hundred years later, we are still feeling the ripple effect of systemic racist policies,” she said. “This is the epitome of environmental injustice.”

What gets protected in communities — and how that is done is determined through a cost-benefit analysis, by the Corps, which focuses on property values. The Corps is required to use it. But the mandate has long been criticized because it does not consider the social vulnerability of disadvantaged communities, something other federal programs do.

For example, a flood risk protection project funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a Norfolk neighborhood that includes public housing did consider social and health benefits to conclude that a protective berm was cost-effective.

The presentation Sudderth attended was the first made to the Southside Task Force, a group of community leaders and civic league presidents that meets every other month. It came 10 months after Alexander, who grew up in Berkley, told the city council that he wanted a conversation with neighborhoods not protected by barriers under the plan.

Spencer, the resiliency officer, said he was committed to better communication with neighborhood leaders and civic leagues in that part of the city. Norfolk, he added, was investigating funding for structural solutions from other federal or state agencies as well as investigating whether the EJ40 initiative might provide a means for the Corps to revise its plan.

Norfolk is at greater risk than other coastal cities, and without the project, the Corps says, 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 $117 million by reducing storm damage and improving the city’s ability to rebound from a storm.

The overall plan includes nine miles of berms, levees and flood walls, at least one as high as 16 feet, in front of a proposed riverfront casino. The first phase covers downtown, the city’s minor league ballpark, portions of the west side, and a neighborhood near downtown that federal officials call “socially vulnerable,” meaning residents are likely to suffer disproportionately from flooding.

Later phases would include a storm surge barrier across the Lafayette River along the city’s west side and another barrier across Broad Creek on its south side. Gates in the barriers downtown and elsewhere will close when storms threaten. Pump stations will help drain the city because the walls will create a bathtub holding in rain.

In areas without barriers, such as the Southside, the plan pays for elevating 1,000 homes and filling some basements.

Jessica Whitehead, the executive director of Old Dominion University’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience, notes that the Norfolk feasibility study was completed five years ago, when there was less of a focus on social justice issues. New studies, she added, have improved the understanding of sea level rise and the value of nature-based solutions.

“A lot about what the Army Corps can do in their designs has changed,” she said. “New studies have come out about how to authentically and meaningfully ensure that there are not disproportionate impacts from these projects on environmental justice communities. As a consequence, there are elements of that study that would probably look very different today if the study was done.”

The federal funds offer a one-time chance to mitigate the damage of a major storm that could devastate the city, Whitehead said. “It’s hard to think about how you turn away dollars that protect to that level. You always want to avoid that kind of risk.”

Once the partnership agreement is signed, changing the plan in a major way that increases cost would require another feasibility study. “That can take years,” said Kristin Mazur, project manager for the Norfolk office of the Army Corps of Engineers. “You’d have to weigh the benefit and then the cost again.”

What the project won’t do is eliminate inundation from intensifying storms or increasingly frequent high-tide flooding. A 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.

At briefings in May and February, Alexander said he was concerned about the effects on waterfront views, particularly of the Elizabeth River. He asked whether a portion of a downtown street could be closed and a waterfront park expanded and elevated.

“Downtown Norfolk is the driver of our economy as well as the center for concerts and festivals and the iconic view,” he said, adding that he did not want the continuous wall along the downtown waterfront in the current design.

Spencer did not have an answer during an interview earlier this month, saying it would require more study. The changes might be considered a “betterment” that the city would have to fund alone, something that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Concerns over the placement of walls throughout their length and their height could be considered as long as changes don’t exceed the planned cost or provide inadequate storm flood protection, according to Mazur. “Not 100 percent of the people in the city are going to be 100 percent happy,” she added.

In Miami-Dade County, local officials rejected a $5 billion plan designed by the Norfolk Army Corps office after a backlash by some residents over walls as high as 20 feet running through neighborhoods and concerns over their effects on real estate values and the environment. The county is working on ideas for a new plan with public meetings, and will decide whether to partner with the Corps later this year.

William “Skip” Stiles, a former congressional staffer and executive director of Wetlands Watch, a local environmental nonprofit, disputes the notion the city needs to move ahead with an imperfect plan to be first in line for federal funds.

“If this is your one shot, make sure it’s your best one,” he said. “Do it right.”