When several days of storms brought more than seven inches of rain to the seaside resort town of Virginia Beach in July, muddy water inundated Blue Pete’s seafood restaurant, which was forced to close for 16 days to dry out and be cleaned up. It was the third time the hugely popular spot, on the aptly named Muddy Creek Road in the city’s rural Pungo area, has flooded this year, says Aristotle Cleanthes, 31, who co-owns it with his twin brother, Nicholas. “It’s a living nightmare. The water’s just destroying us.”
In fact, a lot of the Virginia Beach residents who depend on tourists find themselves thinking about water these days. Chris Ludford, 48, owner of Pleasure House Oysters, takes environmentally or foodie-minded visitors in his fishing boat on oyster tours a few times a week. He motors them down the Lynnhaven River, a protected tidal estuary leading into the Chesapeake Bay, to his oyster beds. There they clamber out of the boat in borrowed waders and taste his fresh-shucked salty, slippery bivalves pulled from underwater cages — and hear their captain’s call to keep this special part of the world a place people will still want to visit for many years to come.
Because it may not be.
During my tour, Ludford points west toward the massive Norfolk Naval Station on the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. The world’s biggest naval base, it used to be one of the many sources of pollution that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay, a disaster for the seafood industry here; oyster farming wasn’t even allowed in the Lynnhaven until the water was finally deemed clean enough in 2007.
Now, says Ludford, “all these big polluters we got under control, and the water’s cleaned up. But everywhere we built on is sinking. Those lots behind the marina? Those have sunk 12 inches in 50 years.”
The current environmental threat to Virginia Beach, which is the most populated city in the state, is flooding. The already low-lying land actually is sinking — for complex reasons including groundwater loss and a now-deflating bulge in the earth created by ice age glaciers. Because of that, combined with rising seas, this part of southeastern Virginia is experiencing the fastest rate of sea-level rise on the East Coast. Scientists predict a rise of 1.5 to two feet by 2050, and that the climate in the state by then will have warmed up to be more like South Carolina’s, an average temperature rise of about 5 degrees.
In the time I spent here, I didn’t see any obvious signs that the region is in peril: There was the lively oceanfront boardwalk area, three miles of beach backed by tall hotels parallel to Atlantic Avenue — a seemingly endless series of Sunsations beach shops, Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard stores, pancake houses and tattoo shops teeming with boisterous crowds on summer weekends. Nothing to inspire anxiety — besides the threat of sunburn or being clocked by some kid’s Frisbee. Tourism brings in about $1.5 billion a year, according to the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, and for good reason. It’s wonderful kayaking into the bay with dolphins playing nearby, walking the boardwalk as the sun lowers in the sky, and exploring the pristine Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the south — especially in fall, when the crowds disappear and the air cools.
The only obvious sign of growing environmental trouble is the increasingly destructive flooding — something that I surely could see if it starts to rain with any sort of intensity, residents told me. A mild storm in May that dropped just a few inches of rain caused flooding on Arctic Avenue in the heart of the tourist area and created virtual ponds (with fish, some reported) in at least one residential neighborhood.
“People are seeing areas that never flooded before are starting to flood,” says Michelle Covi, an assistant professor of practice at Old Dominion University and staffer with the Virginia Sea Grant research program on climate-change resilience in Norfolk. “That’s not just because the sea is coming onto the land, flooding parking lots,” she adds. “It’s because of rain, but when the sea level is higher, [the rainwater] can’t drain.”
The oceanfront itself is relatively safe from flooding for now: The city has an intensive sand replenishment program, a sea wall under the boardwalk and four pumping stations near the beach. Anywhere inland, at this point, is far more vulnerable.
One crucial way to mitigate sea-level rise, say Covi and many other experts, is to restore natural defenses like marsh vegetation and wetlands. But it’s a hard balance between adapting to survive rising waters — which would include limiting development and maybe even moving human activity from the most vulnerable coastal areas — and maintaining a lucrative tourism industry, says Lindsay Usher, an assistant professor at ODU who headed up a project educating businesses about sea-level rise and how they can prepare for and rebound from storm and flood damage.
“I think in a tourist destination it’s something a lot of people don’t want to think about,” Usher says. “It’s their livelihood. They don’t want to think about, ‘Hey, maybe this destination is not going to be here someday.’ ... They can’t even fathom that possibility.”
Ludford, though, is one who’s thinking about the health of his business and hometown 20 or 30 years from now, and uses his tours as a kind of pulpit for his environmental message. “I try to tell people, ‘What’s more valuable, the quick score or the long-term investment in tourism?’ I say the latter. But it’s hard to convince people of that.”
Meanwhile, Aristotle Cleanthes at Blue Pete’s is resigned to the waters’ relentless rising, with developers in Virginia Beach still eager and often allowed to build in vulnerable areas (“They just keep building stuff,” he says) and floodwater that’s pumped with increasing frequency from other stricken neighborhoods into Back Bay, making Blue Pete’s all the wetter. So he and his brother have come up with what may be their only solution: They’re planning to rebuild and raise their beloved restaurant six feet off the ground.
And in the likely case of another flood before the restaurant is redone? He says, "We'll just have to dry it out and ride the tide."
If You Go
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: A haven for birdwatchers during fall migration, the refuge offers more than 9,000 acres of protected beach, forest and marsh, with nearly nine miles of walking trails. It’s about 15 miles south of the city’s boardwalk at 4005 Sandpiper Rd.
Pleasure House Oyster tours: Chris Ludford has three tours: a basic two-hour Tasting Tour ($49.50); the four-hour Waterman tour, with hands-on oyster harvesting lessons and tastings ($82.50); and the three- to four-hour Chef’s Table Tour, which includes an oyster-full lunch or dinner on the sandy spit where the oysters are harvested ($137.50). 757-663-6970.
Esoteric: A farm-to-table restaurant that harvests ingredients from its own garden next door or local farms for dishes such as scallops with bacon and mushrooms. In what’s now called the Vibe district, at 501 Virginia Beach Blvd.
Christina Ianzito is a writer and editor in Washington.