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Virginia Town Forced to Adapt to Rising Seas

Virginia Town Forced to Adapt to Rising Seasi
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September 20, 2013
No one is far from the water in the port city of Norfolk, Virginia, where citizens are feeling the impact of climate change. At high tide and during storms, water floods the streets. Sea level is rising faster here than anywhere else on the U.S. east coast. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the city is learning to adapt to a warmer world.
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Rosanne Skirble
— No one is far from the water in Norfolk, Virginia, where citizens are feeling the impact of climate change.

The port city, home to the largest naval base in the world, is a vital part of the region's economy and is critical to the nation's security.

At high tide and during storms, water floods streets.

Sea level is rising faster here than anywhere else on the U.S. East Coast. The city, and its residents, are learning to adapt to a warmer world.

Rising water

Jeff Miskill lives just steps away from the Lafayette River in a house his grandparents bought in the 1950s.

“In the past, when we would have a storm, the water would not come up even to the yard, just on any storm,” he said.

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That changed in 2003 with Hurricane Isabel. For the first time, water climbed Miskill’s front steps and nearly reached his front door. It’s gotten worse since then with more frequent and severe flooding. Miskill’s house, like many in Norfolk, was built on or near what used to be marsh and wetlands.  

This part of southeastern Virginia was flattened 35 million years by a meteor that created the largest impact crater in North America.

Norfolk sits on the mouth of the largest estuary in the United States with an intricate network of rivers and creeks. When one region floods, so do others, even 50 kilometers away.

  • Flooding closes this pedestrian walkway in downtown Norfolk. (Credit: City of Norfolk)
  • Rising sea level, high tides combine with severe weather to flood Norfolk streets, effectively isolating neighborhoods in this city of 250,000. (Credit: City of Norfolk)
  • When it floods in Norfolk everyone suffers as the region is flat, the legacy of a meteor that hit southeastern Virginia 35 million years ago. (Credit: Skip Stiles)
  • Even when flood water recedes tell-tale stains remain on the sidewalk. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Some early builders in Norfolk saw the threat from the sea and built homes on raised banks of earth. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • The future of this school on a Norfolk river is uncertain because of high tides, sinking land and sea level rise. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Norfolk city government is taking aggressive steps to adapt to rising waters, elevating some houses on higher brick foundations at flood hot spots. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Another short-term fix is to raise roads near like this major artery near a Norfolk medical center. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • In some residential neighborhoods the city is promoting wetland regrowth to absorb some of the flooding waters. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Sea walls help keep the water at bay around the city. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Norfolk is a maritime, military and transportation hub in southeastern Virginia. (Rosanne Skirble/VOA)
  • Rain and heavy winds in 2003 from Hurricane Isabel flood fleet parking at Naval Station Norfolk, trapping vehicles in water as high as their windows. (Credit: U.S. Navy)
  • A Langley Air Force Base, Va., firefighter pulls a boat loaded with evacuees through the flood waters of Hurricane Floyd on Sept. 16, 1999. (Credit: U.S. Air Force.)

“This old wetland, with sea level rise, wants to be a wetland again," said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, an environmental group. "And that’s the problem that we face in this neighborhood, that the tidal water comes up from behind us and floods the neighborhood. And it gets higher and higher and higher every year because it’s coming on top of a higher and higher base of sea level.”

Infrastructure at risk   

New studies predict that the region can expect more than a meter of sea level rise by 2100, which Stiles notes puts city infrastructure at risk.

“Every bridge that we build today, every road that we build today, every sewer line that we put in place today is going to face significant challenges from sea level rise over its useful life before it’s replaced again," Skiles said. "And it’s going to be much more expensive to retrofit them than to design them correctly to begin with.”  

In the short-term, Norfolk has responded with flood walls, powerful pumping stations, drains and storm pipes. And in hotspots, houses and roads are being raised and wetlands allowed to regrow. Assistant city manager Ron Williams is charged with projects like the highway across from Norfolk’s medical center. When it’s done, the road will be one-half meter higher.

“What we have identified is about $1 billion worth of infrastructure that we need, that is critical to protect and mitigate during coastal storms, and until we do that we will still have some vulnerabilities throughout the city,” Williams said.  

Federal support

That’s a hefty bill the city cannot afford on its own.  

“It’s really going to take commitment of the federal and state government to really establish a strategy,” Williams said.  

Retired naval caption Joe Bouchard agrees. A decade ago he commanded Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.  He says it and other nearby military installations account for 45 percent of the region’s economy and are vital for the nation’s security. He says the U.S. Congress must act to address climate change, which it has been reluctant to do.

“Congress needs to overcome that and they need to put our national security above special interests, and when DOD (Dept. of Defense) comes to the Congress requesting funding in the military construction account in the defense appropriations bill, Congress needs to support that,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard and others in Norfolk are pushing for federal support and believe that the military could take the lead, working in tandem with the communities around them to craft a solution to adapt to the increasing threat of climate change before it’s too late.

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