June 10, 2013
Everyone was dripping wet in the elevator on our way to the Flood Executive Group meeting in Norfolk, Virginia’s City Hall. A young man squeezed in on the third floor.
“I’m thinking of going for a swim today after work—right off my front porch,” he joked.
Norfolk has the distinction of being in the second most vulnerable metropolitan area in the U.S.—after New Orleans—to sea level rise, so quips about flooding are common. But, unfortunately, there is always some truth to the banter: even the day’s intermittent thundershowers would lead to flash floods in some neighborhoods.
A rising Atlantic
Norfolk, a city of 250,000 residents, is surrounded by water on three sides. Residents there experience a triple whammy of flooding impacts: There is precipitation flooding from rainfall, storm flooding from hurricanes and nor’easters, and tidal flooding from an unfavorable combination of high tide and wind speeds. Stacking tides, or high tides that accumulate over several cycles, can cause more flooding than a hurricane.
The Virginia Governor’s Commission on Climate Change agreed by consensus that the state’s coastline would see a sea level rise between 2.3 and 5.2 feet over the next century.
Skip Stiles of Wetlands Watch, a local nonprofit, explains the impacts like this: “Think about a hurricane coming from Bermuda with a four-foot storm surge. The good news is it will take a hundred years to get here. The bad news is that it’s not going away.”
A study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science indicates that the waters are rising on Norfolk’s coastline in part due to the local repercussions of global sea level rise, which is caused by a combination of (1) thermal expansion—or the phenomenon that the ocean expands in volume as it warms—and (2) melting land-based sea ice. However, the relative sea level rise rate in Norfolk is projected to be two to three times faster than the global average rate due to subsidence.
Norfolk’s Office of Emergency Management follows the science on sea level rise and the incidence of extreme weather events closely, but their work in the city is geared towards mitigating the impacts that are already occurring.
“Homeowners don’t care what the cause is, they just know that their property is getting flooded,” said Latoya Vaughn, who works as a liaison between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Norfolk residents.
Vaughn’s position was created especially for her in October 2012. Since then, she has been working closely with residents, explaining insurance options, fielding calls after storm surge events, and helping flood-vulnerable residents apply for grants of up to $30,000 to help raise their homes above the floods.
Talking to people about flood insurance is sometimes “worse than being a collection agent,” Vaughn joked. Flood insurance is a requirement for getting a mortgage, and rates are increasing as insurance companies look at the projections for sea level rise and increased precipitation in Norfolk. Vaughn estimated that flood insurance costs run between $8,000 and $10,000 annually, and rates will increase by 25 percent in October for some residents.
Vaughn works with about 800 Norfolk residents in FEMA’s ‘repetitive loss’ group. About 50 homes in the city are in the ‘severe repetitive loss’ group, meaning that, if anyone is flooded in the city, it’s them. These residents are taking some practical precautions, like propping their washer and dryer up on stilts.
“I’ve learned to manage expectations,” Vaughn said. “We do what we can in terms of prevention, and then take common-sense approaches to mitigate the impacts. I’m trying to come up with creative ways to help people.”
After just a year and a half in Norfolk, Vaughn knows the names of all of the residents in the ‘severe repetitive loss’ group and the history of flooding in their homes. She’s gained residents’ trust—and a reputation. Last week, an 87-year-old woman called Vaughn to tell her water was coming up to her back door. “They told me you’re the lady to help,” the woman said.
A house-raising party
In Larchmont, a handful of homeowners that Vaughn worked with received FEMA grant money and are now elevating their houses. The process requires disconnecting the utilities, sliding in beams and using hydraulic pumps to very gradually raise the house, inserting cribbing, and finally building up the foundation and adding stairs up to a new, higher door. This technology helps individual homeowners, but it may not make financial sense for entire regions, such as Willoughby Spit, that are constantly flooding.
“The balance is between how many homes to elevate versus floodgate projects,” Jim Redick, the Director of Norfolk Emergency Preparedness and Response, said.
The City does have one major floodwall, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. When the water rises above five feet, the floodgates close to protect downtown from flooding. Now, Norfolk is again working with the Corps on several infrastructure projects to mitigate flooding, and the City was just selected to participate in the Rockefeller Foundation RE.invest Initiative to create a more resilient stormwater system.
There may be limits to the extent that Norfolk can ‘adapt’ to sea level rise and increased flooding. The city estimates that a comprehensive sea-level rise plan implementation will cost between $300 million and $1 billion, according to consulting firm Fugro Atlantic.
“We want to help people, but there are limited resources and a lot of flooding,” said Vaughn.
In a bold statement at a public hearing, Mayor Paul Fraim suggested that the city should use zoning to “retreat” from areas that constantly flood. The rising insurance rates, in theory, should disincentivize coastal development. But Stiles of Wetland Watch thinks it may just serve to push lower-income residents out.
“Sending the right price signals can gentrify the coast, but you haven’t done much by the way of adaptation,” Stiles said.
Stiles speaks about sea level rise at lots of local meetings, and he listens to other peoples’ stories, too. When he presents the projections for the region, the audience often gets quiet:
“There’s usually pause as someone calculates exactly when their house goes under water. The reality for this region is pretty sobering.”
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