Sea-level rise predictions become more dire for region
Situated on a bank of the Hague, the Y-shaped inlet off the Elizabeth River that shares a name with the city in the Netherlands, Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art is no stranger to the impacts of high tides, as well as flooded streets and parking lots during heavy rainfalls.
Right now, flooding is mainly a source of annoyance, says Chrysler Director and CEO Erik Neil, but it’s also a threat to the art, which the museum has addressed with renovations and moving artwork from the ground floor to second-floor space.
“We’ve never had water rise into the building, but we all know that given the right set of circumstances, it’s in the realm of possibility,” Neil says.
Throughout Hampton Roads, many businesses, localities and institutions are formulating plans to enhance their resiliency in the face of sea-level rise, as well as frequent flooding during storms and heavy rainfalls. Scientists say that sea-level rise in the region is escalating at almost twice the global average due to a mixture of human-caused ocean warming and expansion, which melts glaciers that raise the level of all oceans.
A 2013 study by Old Dominion University scientists further states that a proliferation of manmade structures built on already depressed land on Hampton Roads’ coasts have contributed to faster sea rise locally. The sea level at Virginia Beach has risen nearly a foot since 1970, and it is expected to rise 3 feet by 2075.
There’s also more rainfall. Six of the 10 biggest storm surges at Norfolk’s Sewells Point over the past century have taken place within the last 20 years, says a new report produced by the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine for the General Assembly.
And funding flood mitigation is a major challenge facing the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, as well as other Hampton Roads localities that have fewer tourist dollars.
Underfunded and at risk
Ann Phillips, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and Gov. Ralph Northam’s special assistant for coastal adaptation and protection, says that the frequent annoyance of flooding keeps public interest (and local governments) engaged in seeking solutions that will protect the region from future damage.
“We have a lot of infrastructure at risk,” Phillips says, noting that local military installations, NASA’s Langley and Wallops Island facilities and the Port of Virginia’s Hampton Roads terminals and yards are all at risk of flooding now and in the future. Also, the state has only recently begun dedicating funding to catastrophic flooding — including a flood-preparedness community fund created in 2020 by the General Assembly.
The state netted $40 million for the fund via carbon credit auctions earlier this year, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly $5 billion anticipated cost of seawalls and related infrastructure needed to protect Virginia Beach and Norfolk from destructive floodwaters.
Although Hampton Roads has not experienced a major weather disaster since 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, the impact of Hurricane Ida on the Northeast in September — killing at least 40 people in New Jersey and New York City and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage — is a reminder of how destructive such a storm could be to Eastern Virginia.
“It’s a whole lot better than the previous nothing,” Phillips says of the community flood fund. But she notes that between the Army Corps of Engineers’ $98 billion national backlog in resiliency projects and the state’s minimal flood preparedness funding, a significant financial burden falls on localities like Norfolk and Virginia Beach to build expensive seawalls and other protective infrastructure.
The funding setup differs between Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Phillips notes, because Norfolk collaborated with the Army Corps of Engineers on its resilience plan and therefore will see 65% of its $1.75 billion project funded with federal dollars.
The city of Virginia Beach, however, is working from a plan produced by Northern Virginia engineering firm Dewberry. Because the Army Corps was not involved, the city does not get as much federal funding for the $3 billion project, although Phillips says Virginia Beach hopes to have about 50% of the budget covered by federal dollars.
“At the moment, Virginia Beach is on its own,” Phillips says. “The goal is to work with the federal government to bring in dollars. The most common thing is to work with the Corps. It gets you in line if there’s a large disaster.”
Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the community preparedness fund, is also devoting attention to other flood-prone regions — Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Franklin and other areas — that have less money to spend on protection.
Bigger storms brewing
Meanwhile, storm intensity is growing, Hampton Roads localities’ current infrastructure is less capable of handling extra rainwater, and flooding costs the city of Norfolk alone $26 million a year, according to the August report commissioned by the General Assembly.
The state will release more information about so-called 100-year floods later this year in the Virginia Coastal Resilience Master Plan being prepared by Dewberry for release in November. The federal designation means that there is a 1% chance that a flood of that magnitude — currently rainfall of 9.4 inches in a single day — will occur in a given year.
The Dewberry study will include a projection of how quickly what previously were considered 100-year floods will have a 10% to 50% chance of occurring annually, says Jessica C. Whitehead, a member of the state resiliency commission and director of Old Dominion University’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience.
With higher flood risks come higher expenses to the local economy. A 2016 study commissioned by the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at the William & Mary Law School predicted that the regional economy would shrink by $611 million the year after a 100-year storm, and if the sea level rises 0.75 meters over its current state in Hampton Roads, tax collection would fall by $309 million due to expected damage to residential structures.
Norfolk’s Vision 2100 strategic plan for responding to flooding and sea-level rise provides a blueprint for expanding the city’s flood protection system — including a downtown floodwall built in the 1970s. The plan includes how to improve transportation connections and diversify housing options, as well as fortifying major employers like the Port of Virginia, ODU, the Naval Station and Tidewater Community College.
In Virginia Beach, City Council last year approved the Sea Level Wise Adaptation Plan, which includes proposals for adapting buildings and infrastructure to enhance resiliency as well as restricting new development in the most flood-prone parts of the city.
“We’re at a critical stage because the sea level is rising and land is subsiding,” says Pamela Boatwright, deputy director of administration for the Elizabeth River Project, a nonprofit working to restore the environmental quality of the Elizabeth River. The organization is now building the Pru and Louis Ryan Resilience Lab on Knitting Mill Creek, which will be the state’s first urban redevelopment project built on a floodplain when it opens in 2023.
Adapting can be a daunting task, especially for businesses unable to relocate to higher ground. “If your business is situated 11 feet above sea level, you’re in great shape, but if your business is accessible via a road that’s two feet above sea level, that’s a problem,” Boatwright notes. “It’s going to be a big lift for everybody.”
‘We know it’s coming’
With 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk ranks second to New Orleans as the U.S.’s largest city at risk from sea-level rise. Water levels in coastal Norfolk have risen more than 14 inches since 1930, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts additional increases up to 4.5 feet by the year 2100.
The Larchmont neighborhood, plus parts of Ghent and Riverpoint, frequently sees standing water of 3 to 4 feet, even during moderate storms, Whitehead says. A 2013 study of recurrent flooding in the Hampton Roads region conducted by William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that flooding presents traffic challenges and shoreline erosion that put roads at risk of collapse. Tunnels also are in danger of flooding if there’s a storm surge, and water supply and sewage utilities could be disabled if pumps are inundated by floodwater, the study adds.
“We know it’s coming,” notes Doug Beaver, Norfolk’s chief resilience officer. “The land is subsiding by 3.5 millimeters a year. Over a period of time, that becomes significant.”
Three years ago, Norfolk enacted a zoning ordinance to enhance flood resilience and provide incentives for businesses to locate in areas at lower risk of flooding, “one of the most innovative and forward-thinking zoning ordinances in the nation,” Beaver says.
He and his colleagues are pushing ahead with the city’s plan developed with the Army Corps of Engineers. First up: extending the flood wall toward Harbor Park, a $130 million project.
The city received nearly $113 million from the federal government for the project, but other big-ticket items may not get federal funding, Beaver adds.
While Hampton Roads has become nationally known for its proactivity in addressing sea-level rise, Whitehead adds that many in the region are reluctant to think about permanent land loss. “It’s very challenging to think systematically about what sea-level rise will do to the economy, social systems and community. Serious conversations must be had — not just in Hampton Roads but nationally.”
Phillips says that in the forthcoming state study, there will be a “strategic coastal relocation handbook,” Virginia’s first official guide to community relocation. “It’s the start of the conversation,” she says.
Although “relocation is Plan B,” Phillips says, Plan A — flood mitigation — is still in effect for even the most vulnerable areas. “We also realize that we can’t save everyone,” and some businesses and homeowners will ultimately need to move, she adds, noting that economically disadvantaged communities will likely bear the brunt of flooding and related financial damage.
With Hampton Roads at the forefront of sea-level rise in the U.S., entities throughout the region are joining forces to develop innovative resilience strategies. ODU’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience brings together researchers from across disciplines to develop practical solutions for issues faced by coastal communities.
Sea-level rise poses different problems for Hampton Roads businesses, depending on their size and location.
“The port has tremendous infrastructure, so you have to determine a plan for when it gets permanently inundated over time,” Whitehead says, but the impact will be felt well before permanent inundation occurs 80 years from now.
“Higher sea levels mean we have less stormwater capacity until we retrofit stormwater systems,” she explains. “It takes a much less strong storm with relatively lower storm surge to produce a flood that impacts the same amount of land. You’ll also see greater reach of tidal flooding and stormwater flooding than you have in the past, long before you reach that permanent inundation.”
Although flooding may not directly affect the Port of Virginia’s terminals, Whitehead predicts that roads needed for cargo transport could be flooded. “Hampton Boulevard already floods due to high tide/hard rain combinations,” she says.
Phillips notes that the Port of Virginia has focused significant effort on sustainability and resilience — including collaborating on the Hampton Roads’ region’s resilience pilot project, the city of Norfolk’s storm risk management study and federal authorities’ efforts. But what the surrounding localities do — or don’t do — has a significant impact on the port, she points out.
“It’s not just [the port],” Phillips says. “If their people can’t get to work, they’re in trouble.”
The region’s economic development prospects are especially vulnerable, with sea-level rise and flooding affecting property values, insurance rates and basic business operations, says Nancy Grden, executive director of ODU’s Hampton Roads Maritime Collaborative for Growth & Innovation.
“If there’s regional flooding and if major utilities such as water, electricity and broadband are out, there’s loss of productivity. If customers are impacted by flooding, that’s going to change the pace and nature of their purchase. There are ramifications for businesses thinking about coming to Hampton Roads or expanding in the area.”
Having steered New Orleans’ Newcomb Art Museum through Hurricane Katrina, the Chrysler Museum’s Neil understands the devastating effects of flooding and the importance of contingency plans to protect assets.
Proposed solutions include raising streets surrounding the Chrysler to allow water to immediately drain underneath the pavement. The Army Corps has also considered building a floodwall to protect the Hague area from storm surges of 8 feet or higher at an anticipated cost of $160 million.
“If that doesn’t get built, we will have to seriously consider moving,” Neil says, “but we have time before we have to make that call.”