A true sea change

Hampton Roads feels the effects of rising water and sinking land

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis
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Illustration by Matt Brown

“When you marry a beach boy,” says Ann-Meade Simpson, “you know where you’re going to live.”  Since the early 1970s, Simpson has lived and sold real estate in Virginia Beach.  “My market has always been oceanfront,” says Simpson.  But that oceanfront has started to change.

“High tide lines are different than they used to be,” explains Simpson.  Beaches have been battered in the Sandbridge area, she notes.  “We’re watching the islands in the Lynnhaven River disappear.  We are certainly seeing sea level rise.”

“It floods on the full moon,” says former Norfolk resident Shana Jones.  “It floods on the nor’easter.  It floods all the time.”  Jones is director of the College of William & Mary’s Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic (VCPC).  Her job includes advising leaders on policy responses to sea-level change. Virginia’s leaders are listening.

“They have not always wanted to talk about climate change, but they’re ready to talk about this,” says Jones. 

During the past four decades, Virginia’s coastal waters have been inching inland.  The resultant flooding impacts more than just the beachfront residents and businesses; it threatens some of the commonwealth’s largest cities and most important industries. 

“In Hampton Roads the three pillars of the economy are defense spending, the port and tourism,” notes Joseph Bouchard, a former member of the House of Delegates representing Virginia Beach.  “And all three are threatened by sea-level rise.” So while home and business owners struggle to keep their investments above water, leaders around the region and across the state are debating how best to hold back the tide.

How far, how fast
Coastlines change.  Nobody knows this better than Bouchard, a retired U.S. Navy captain whose career included command of Naval Station Norfolk.  But the sea change facing Virginia’s coast is different.

“What we thought we know, based on experience, is no longer valid,” says Bouchard.

Back in 2000, when he assumed oversight of Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, rising tides already influenced all major facility decisions.  “We were adapting,” he recounts, “but we mistakenly thought that because the sea level had risen a foot in the last century, it would rise another in the next century.”
Not so. 

For 85 years, Norfolk’s Sewells Point data collection station has measured high tides.  In that time, the sea has risen roughly 4.5 millimeters a year.  That’s on average.  In the mid-1980s, sea-level rise began accelerating, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), a sister organization to the VCPC.  When analyzing tides along the eastern seaboard, it found the

Atlantic is now rising 0.3 millimeters (or .01 inch) faster each year.

That may sound minor, but it adds up. 

“Acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise has the kind of compound effect you see in a savings account or with credit-card debt,” the study’s author, William & Mary Professor Emeritus John Boon, explains in a statement.  

Globally, seas are predicted to rise, on average, between 1.5 and 6 feet by the end of the 21st century, according to reports by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers and scientists around the world.  The range reflects various scenarios for emissions (i.e., decreased, increased, or steady burning of fossil fuels), rate of ice melt and other factors.

Forecasting is further complicated by local features, which put some coasts at greater peril. 

“We’re near the top of the list for regions at risk,” notes W&M’s Jones.

By the year 2100, the Tidewater region could see as much as an 8-foot change in high tides, according to a 2013 VIMS study on recurrent flooding commissioned by the General Assembly.  That figure reflects what’s called “relative sea-level rise,” because in Hampton Roads, the sea isn’t just rising; the land also is sinking.

That sinking, called subsidence, stems from natural causes (geological adjustments dating to the last ice age) as well as human influences (pumping water out of aquifers).  Sea-level rise also is linked to natural cycles and human behavior (warming oceans, melting polar ice, etc.).

In addition to rising water and sinking land, coastal flooding is influenced by rainfall and storm surges, the water pushed inland during hurricanes, nor’easters and tropical storms (Hurricane Irene generated a 4.2-foot storm surge at Sewells Point in 2011).  Those storms are becoming more intense.

“We’re seeing those ‘100-year storms’ every 20 years,” notes Bruce Wielicki, a senior scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.  “And Virginia’s on the front lines of this.”
What’s at risk?

A growing pool of research explores the risks rising waters pose to public health, jobs, infrastructure, the natural environment and national security. From every angle, flooding costs Virginia.
Consider the financial effects of a relative sea-level rise of one meter (3.28 feet, roughly the midpoint in extreme high and low predictions), without any added threat from storms.  That’s the scenario examined by Ben McFarlane, a planner with the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC). He is the author of a 2012 report, the last of a three-part project exploring effects of climate change on the region. 

The study found as many as 176,000 Virginians currently live in neighborhoods threatened with permanent or regular flooding by the year 2100.  That includes 10 percent of the population of Hampton and 11 percent of Norfolk residents.

Virginia Beach tops the region in vulnerability of land area, with nearly 90 square miles at risk of inundation.  The improvement value (i.e., buildings, parking lots, etc.) of properties at risk across Hampton Roads — more than 61,000 parcels — tops $30 billion.  Vulnerable infrastructure includes more than 800 miles of roads.  More than 3,600 businesses could be impacted, including the more than 50,000 people they employ.

That’s from a 1 meter rise in sea level.

What happens when a big storm hits on top of that?  A 1.5-foot sea-level rise combined with a 3-foot storm surge could impede access to nine of the region’s military facilities, including Langley Air Force Base, Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk Naval Shipyard and Naval Air Station Oceana.  That’s according to “Roadways Serving the Military and Sea Level Rise/Storm Surge,” a report published last July by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, HRPDC and others.

The impact of rising water inside the Naval Station was the focus of a five-year, $1.8 million study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the 300-page report will be published this spring.  At a preview presentation at Old Dominion University last fall, the study’s primary author, Kelly Burks-Copes, posed key questions facing the Navy:  “Should they retreat?   Should they completely move away?  If they decide to stay, how do they fortify?”

Retreat is unrealistic, says Bouchard, the former head of the Naval Station.  No other base on the Atlantic has the space, or depth, to absorb the Norfolk fleet.  Even the smaller projects and programs depend on ocean proximity — it is the Navy, after all — and are unlikely to relocate just to face varying degrees of sea-level rise wherever they go.  The key question is how much will it cost to make Hampton Roads facilities — military and municipal — safe.

“The physical threat is an economic threat,” says Bouchard, pointing to the region’s other two key industries:  tourism, and the port.

The Port of Virginia supports more than 35,000 jobs and generates roughly $4.5 billion in economic impact for Virginia, according to a 2008 study. By sheer volume of cargo, it’s ranked the seventh busiest port in the nation, according to the American Association of Port Authorities, but it moves less freight than New York/New Jersey and Savannah, Ga., ports, both of which are less vulnerable to sea-level rise. 

“The port’s a big part of our regional economy,” says the HRPDC’s McFarlane.  “The shipyards are in low-lying areas.  Anything that puts these resources at risk impacts the economy of the entire region.”

As for tourism, Virginia’s third-largest industry, some of the region’s biggest draws sit on its most vulnerable land, including Jamestown, the Virginia Air and Space Center and Fort Monroe.  Among the most at-risk assets is the beach.  Virginia Beach generated a record $1.3 billion in tourism revenue in 2012, supporting more than 12,000 jobs.  Defending the industry has been a priority for the city since the 1950s when it began a sand replenishment program. 

“As a community, we’ve been proactive,” notes Ann-Meade Simpson, the real estate professional. But as ever-rising tides erode beaches from the Outer Banks to Hawaii, “some may argue it’s fighting a losing battle.” 

Layer a storm surge on top of these challenges, and the effects on a tourism town can be catastrophic.  When it came ashore at Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy pushed an 8.5-foot storm surge inland.  The storm cost New Jersey $1.2 billion in tourism-related spending, plus more than 11,000 tourism-supported jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
But while Hampton Roads’ tourism, defense and shipping industries study future consequences of sea-level rise, for some the costs of flooding are already adding up.

What’s getting wet?
Dubbed the most vulnerable city on the Atlantic Coast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (second only to New Orleans in the nation), Norfolk has become a “poster child” for sea-level rise.  Yet to date, according to Assistant City Manager Ron Williams, most of the impact is on residential property.  

The Hague, a historic district in downtown Norfolk, has always flooded … some.  But before 1980, no single year had seen more than 100 hours of inundation.  During the next few decades, The Hague kept breaking records:  200 hours, 250, 300 hours a year.

To measure the damage, Williams points to the city’s “repetitive loss” rates, or properties on which owners filed at least two $1,000-or-more flood-damage claims within 10 years.  In Norfolk, in 2009 there were only 200 “repetitive loss” properties.  By 2012, that number hit 900. 

And once a house has a reputation for flooding, it can become pretty hard to sell.

“We have to be very clear,” says Simpson, “letting people know they may be in a flood zone.” 

But the biggest turn-off to would-be buyers, Simpson explains, is the cost of insuring an at-risk home.  “Some companies stopped writing policies within a mile of mean high tide,” she explains. 

“Separate and apart from flood insurance.  And that does, gradually, impact real estate sales.”

Property value and insurance costs impact flooded businesses as well. 

The Strickland and Jones accounting firm has three offices in Hampton Roads.

“Our Virginia Beach and Newport News locations are both fine,” notes Stephen Jones, the company’s president.  “They’re both on the second floor.”

But the Norfolk office is on the ground floor, half-mile from the Hague district.  It’s also a repetitive loss property.  The first flooding came in 2003, with Hurricane Isabel.  In 2009, it was a nor’easter; in 2011, Hurricane Irene.  

After replacing the carpets and drywall for the third time, Jones lobbied the city to nominate the company’s property for a FEMA grant, which it won.  Jones hopes construction will begin this summer on a $330,000, 3.5-foot protective wall.

Even those businesses not in a flood zone should pay attention, according to Shana Jones, at the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic.  “I don’t know if businesses have thought through the impacts to supply chain if roads are under water, or if employees can’t get to work.” 

That will happen more and more, according to Norfolk-based engineer Anil Sharma. “Our surface roads will be most impacted,” says Sharma.  “Bridges are generally okay, but a lot of major highways and tunnels are at risk.” 

A group director of construction services with HNTB Corp., overseeing Hampton Roads’ $2.4 billion Midtown Tunnel project, Sharma is focused on these public investments. 

The challenge of sea level is being discussed, industry-wide, says Sharma.  “Infrastructure has generally been designed for the times in which it’s built, but that’s changing.  New infrastructure needs to meet conservative predictions and consider the long-term impacts we’ll see with these climate changes.”

Business as usual no longer cuts it at the coast.  From new transportation projects, to historic neighborhoods, success now depends on adapting to the inevitably rising tides.

Charting a course
Plans for adaptation abound, ranging from practical tips for homeowners — elevate air-conditioning units and track flood reports to know where to park your car — to revised regulations and comprehensive plans. 

Hampton has es­­tablished a home-elevation loan process.  Both Virginia Beach and Norfolk recently updated their flood plain ordinances with higher free board limits (the minimum floor height for new construction), and Hampton’s considering the same.

But there’s no easy fix here, nor is it cheap.

Norfolk’s already investing millions to elevate roadways and install larger pipes and more powerful pumps to speed stormwater runoff.  But that’s just a start.

“The region’s going to need gray infrastructure — levies and flood walls,” notes Shana Jones.  While she admits building walls to hold back the ocean seems simplistic, other options are equally hard.  “We can retreat.  We can leave a green buffer.  But who wants to be the one to say, ‘You can’t live here anymore’?”

Not elected officials.  So the region’s gearing up for adaptation; a $1 billion venture in Norfolk alone, Mayor Paul Fraim told the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic conference last fall.  And they’re looking for investors. 

Among them is The Rockefeller Foundation, which selected Norfolk for its RE.invest initiative, which helped finance the stormwater upgrades.  The foundation tapped the city again last December, naming it one of its 100 Resilient Cities, an honor that brings with it expert guidance on surviving natural and manmade disasters.

Regional leaders are also seeking federal assistance.  After all, notes Norfolk’s Ron Williams, “The assets at risk are critical to our nation’s defense and for our nation’s economy.  That’s the argument we make when we’re seeking support from Congress.”

But it’s really the state who should lead on sea-level solutions, at least according to the General Assembly’s “Recurrent Flooding” report.  The VIMS-authored project stresses such leadership is needed sooner rather than later.  “It takes time (20-30 years) to effectively plan and implement many of the adaptation strategies,” the report states, “and recurrent flooding is … predicted to become worse over reasonable planning horizons (20-50 years).”

The urgency rests in both rising tides and the rising costs of solutions.

“Nothing gets cheaper,” notes Sharma.  “Labor.  Materials.  Whatever we don’t do today will cost more five or 10 years from now.” 

Williams points to the downtown flood wall, built in 1970.  “That was a $5 million investment,” he says.  “Today?  That would probably cost $20 [million] to $30 million.” 

No sea-level rise adaptation funding bill was debated during this General Assembly session. However, both the House and Senate unanimously passed bills creating a joint subcommittee on the topic.  It’s charged with drafting a comprehensive plan for minimizing impacts from “recurrent flooding” for presentation in November 2015.

A statewide plan of action  already is in the works.  Established in the aftermath of 9/11, the Secure Commonwealth Panel advises the governor on issues of emergency preparedness.  Last year, at the request of the city of Norfolk, it created a Recurring Coastal Flooding Subpanel to explore how best to implement recommendations from the General Assembly/VIMS study.     

Yet what neither of these plans examine — an issue noticeably absent from most policy-level discussions of sea-level rise — is addressing this problem at its source.

“We do not get into the causality discussion.  Not at all,” says Williams.  “We’re looking at the year 2100 and how we can prepare.”

But treating symptoms without seeking a cure is a mistake, says Bouchard.  He explains that adaptation only cuts losses, while efforts to slow or reverse sea-level rise actually grow the economy by creating new jobs and new industries.  He points to Virginia’s offshore wind potential.  “This is an economic opportunity.  We’ve got to reduce greenhouse gases.”

At Langley, Wielicki agrees.  “The way you pull the brake on sea level rise is to invest in alternative fuel research.”  He hopes the high cost of adapting to sea-level rise will inspire people to make that investment.

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