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Norfolk, Va., Puts Flooding Survival Plan To The Test

Nov 6, 2012
Originally published on November 6, 2012 12:18 pm

Superstorm Sandy got officials in New York and New Jersey talking about how to prevent flooding in a time of global warming and sea level rise.

But the place on the East Coast that's most vulnerable to flooding is several hundred miles south, around Norfolk, Va. — and Norfolk has already spent many years studying how to survive the rising waters.

Scientists say what Norfolk has learned is especially important in light of new research showing that the coastline from North Carolina to Boston will experience even more sea level rise than other areas.

If you drive through the communities surrounding Norfolk, it's easy to see why many people still call this area Tidewater. Go east to Virginia Beach and you hit water. Go west to Lambert's Point or north to Ocean View and there's more water.

And in downtown Norfolk, the water is so close that a moored battleship, the USS Wisconsin, looks like it's about to enter rush hour traffic.

So when residents here got news of Sandy's impact up north, they felt compassion, says Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim. But they also felt another emotion, he says.

"I think we were all relieved that it wasn't us," he says. "It could have been us."

About 1.7 million people live in this area, which includes a major port and is home to the world's largest naval base. All it takes is a high tide or heavy rain to cause problems, Fraim says.

"We deal with stormwater flooding in the city now on a monthly basis," he says. "And we talk about planning for it, mitigating, all the time."

The city doesn't have much choice. Fraim says Sandy turned city streets into rivers, even though it was just a Category 1 storm that passed by well out to sea.

"A severe Category 2 or a Category 3 storm, if we were to receive a direct hit, almost all of the city would be underwater," Fraim says.

That's true even though Norfolk has already done a lot to protect itself.

The Problem Of Rising Water

Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University, likes to show visitors the massive sea wall that usually keeps water out of Norfolk's downtown.

"That's it," he says, standing on a platform just outside the sea wall. "There's piles of rock about, what, 10, 20 feet high, and it runs into a concrete wall."

The sea wall was high enough when it was built several decades ago, but Atkinson says it may not be anymore.

"Well, you can see the brown mark there on the pumping station," he says, pointing to a place well up the wall. "That's where high tide normally is."

When Hurricane Irene went by last year, waves approached the top of the barrier, Atkinson says, adding that just about everyone in Norfolk acknowledges the problem of rising water.

"The debate here is: What do you do?" he says. "There's no longer the question about what's going on. We know what's going on."

There are several factors that make Norfolk highly prone to flooding. First, for a variety of reasons, the land here is sinking. Second, sea level everywhere is rising as warmer temperatures melt polar ice and cause ocean water to expand.

Then there's a third factor that scientists confirmed just a few months ago: This stretch of the Atlantic coast is getting an extra dose of sea level rise. The reason is that the extra water in the oceans isn't being distributed evenly, says Asbury Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey.

"We should not view sea level rise as like a bathtub just filling up with water," he says. That's because, unlike a bathtub, the ocean has currents that pile up water in some places and keep it low in others.

Imagine you have a cup of water, Sallenger says. "If you take a spoon and you stir, you'll see that the water rises along the margins of the cup," he says. "And that elevation will stay higher as long as you keep stirring."

When you stop, though, the water at the margins falls, while the water in the center rises. And that's what's happening now because global warming is slowing some currents in the Atlantic, Sallenger says.

"So places like New York City and Norfolk, Va., will have significantly higher sea level rise rates than places farther south along the Eastern Seaboard," he says, adding that the higher rate could mean an extra foot or so of water by the end of the century.

'We Are Not Able To Hold Back The Sea By Ourselves'

People in Norfolk are aware of the growing flood risk, but aren't necessarily doing anything about it, says Poornima Madhavan, who is in the psychology department at Old Dominion University and has done surveys of how people are responding.

For example, the proportion of people who said they had flood insurance was "a completely underwhelming 1 percent of the population," Madhavan says.

Surveys also suggest that longtime residents expect to stay, even if the flooding gets worse, while many other people say they'll just move away if flooding gets too bad, she says. And that could be a big problem for places like NASA's Langley Research Center, she says, which has protected its runways from flooding, but can't protect the homes of its 4,000 workers.

"And then we have the shipyard on the other side of the Peninsula, which has been seeing water in its dry docks," Madhavan says. "They employ 25,000 or 30,000 people. They're going to have to go somewhere."

To make sure residents don't lose their homes, Norfolk has already taken a number of steps. It spends millions each year to improve drainage. It has also raised the level of some roads and found money to elevate the foundations of some houses.

But the centerpiece of Norfolk's survival strategy is a comprehensive plan put together by a Dutch company to keep water out of some of the city's most vulnerable neighborhoods. The plan includes more sea walls, floodgates, pumping stations and earthen berms.

The price tag: about $1 billion, roughly the size of the city's entire annual budget. That means it can't be done without help from state and federal government, Fraim says. "We simply are not able to hold back the sea by ourselves."

And even if Fraim is able to raise the money, the city's strategy will still require something known as "managed retreat," he says.

"The cost of the flood mitigation sometimes is so steep that it actually makes more sense just to, you know, give up a few homes," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE: Hurricane Sandy showed how vulnerable the coasts of New York and New Jersey are to flooding. Research suggests that as global warming continues, problems for those areas will get worse.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new study shows the coastline from North Carolina to Boston will experience more sea level rise than the rest of the Eastern seaboard, and one community, Norfolk, Virginia, will see the worst of it. So NPR's Jon Hamilton went to Norfolk to check out the city's plan to survive.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: It's easy to see why many people still call this area Tidewater. Go east to Virginia Beach and you hit water. Go west to Lambert's Point or north to Ocean View - more water. And in downtown Norfolk, the water is so close that a moored battleship, the USS Wisconsin, looks like it's about to enter rush hour traffic. Paul Fraim is the mayor of Norfolk. He says when Sandy struck, local residents felt bad for people in New York and New Jersey, but he says there was also another emotion.

MAYOR PETER FRAIM: I think we were all relieved that it wasn't us, but I mean it could have been us.

HAMILTON: About 1.7 million people live in this area, which includes a major port and is home to the world's largest naval base. And Fraim says all it takes is a high tide or a heavy rain to cause problems.

FRAIM: We deal with stormwater flooding in the city now on a monthly basis. And we talk about planning for it, mitigating, all the time.

HAMILTON: The city doesn't have much choice. Fraim says Sandy turned streets into rivers, even though it was just a Category 1 storm that passed by well out to sea.

FRAIM: A severe Category 2 or a Category 3 storm, if we were to receive a direct hit, almost all of the city would be underwater.

HAMILTON: That's true even though Norfolk has already done a lot to protect itself. Larry Atkinson is an oceanographer at Old Dominion University. He says the downtown usually stays dry because of a massive sea wall.

LARRY ATKINSON: That's it. There's piles of rock about, what, 10, 20 feet high, and it runs into a concrete wall. Huge pumping stations...

HAMILTON: The sea wall was high enough when it was built several decades ago, but Atkinson says it may not be anymore.

ATKINSON: Well, you can see the brown mark there on the pumping station. I mean that's where high tide normally is. Every week or two that's how high the water will be.

HAMILTON: Without any surge.

ATKINSON: With nothing else. So if you add one, two, three, four, five feet to that, you'll see you're starting to get up at the top of that pumping station.

HAMILTON: Atkinson says when Hurricane Irene went by last year, waves reached the top of the barrier.

ATKINSON: The debate here is: What do you do? You know, how do you adapt to this? There's no longer the question about what's going on. We know what's going on.

HAMILTON: Scientists say several factors make Norfolk highly prone to flooding. First, for a variety of reasons, the land here is sinking. Second, sea level everywhere is rising as warmer temperatures melt polar ice and cause ocean water to expand. Then there's a third factor that scientists confirmed just a few months ago.

This stretch of the Atlantic coast is getting an extra dose of sea level rise. Asbury Sallenger of the U.S. Geological Survey says that's because the extra water in the oceans isn't being distributed evenly.

ASBURY SALLENGER: We should not view sea level rise as like a bathtub just filling up with water.

HAMILTON: Sallenger says unlike a bathtub, an ocean has currents that pile up water in some places and keep it low in others. He says imagine you have a cup of water.

SALLENGER: If you take a spoon and you stir, you'll see that the water rises along the margins of the cup. And that elevation will stay higher as long as you keep stirring.

HAMILTON: When you stop, though, the water at the margins falls, while the water in the center rises. And Sallenger says that's what's happening because global warming is slowing some currents in the Atlantic.

SALLENGER: So places like New York City and Norfolk, Virginia will have significantly higher sea level rise rates than places farther south along the Eastern seaboard like Savannah or Charleston or Jacksonville.

HAMILTON: That will mean an extra foot or so of water by the end of the century. Poornima Madhavan is a psychologist at Old Dominion University who's been studying how local residents are reacting to the growing risk of flooding. Madhavan says her interest isn't just professional.

POORNIMA MADHAVAN: When I moved here five years ago, I had no idea flooding was a problem here, and nobody told me.

HAMILTON: Madhavan says she and her family soon learned and they came to accept it.

MADHAVAN: We get water logging in the backyard. We have a pool in the backyard every time it rains, but then the pool dries up and goes away and we just continue living there.

HAMILTON: Madhavan has done surveys showing that residents know about the flood risk, but aren't necessarily doing anything about it.

MADHAVAN: We ask people a lot of questions about what kind of insurance they have and a completely underwhelming one percent of the population that we surveyed said they actually have flood insurance.

HAMILTON: Madhavan says her surveys also showed that longtime residents expect to stay, even if the flooding gets worse, but she says many other people say they'll just move away if flooding gets too bad. And Madhavan says that could be a big problem for places like NASA's Langley Research Center. It has protected its runways from flooding but can't protect the homes of its 4,000 workers.

MADHAVAN: And then we have the shipyard on the other side of the peninsula, which has been seeing water in its dry docks. They employ 25 or 30 thousand people. They are the largest private sector employer here. What happens to all those people? They're going to have to go somewhere. And if all these start to disintegrate, this is really bad news economically.

HAMILTON: Paul Fraim, the mayor of Norfolk, says his city has already done a lot to protect residents from flooding. It has raised the level of some roads and found money to lift the foundations of some houses. And Norfolk has hired a Dutch company to devise comprehensive plan to keep water out of several neighborhoods. The plan includes more sea walls, floodgates, pumping stations and earthen berms.

Fraim says it will be expensive.

FRAIM: Probably just north of $1 billion.

HAMILTON: Is there any way that a place like Norfolk could pay for that kind of thing on its own?

FRAIM: No. I mean we simply are not able to hold back the sea by ourselves.

HAMILTON: So Fraim's looking for a lot of help from the state and from the federal government. And he's looking for cooperation from people whose houses won't be behind the sea wall.

FRAIM: The cost of the flood mitigation sometimes is so steep that it actually makes more sense just to, you know, give up a few homes.

HAMILTON: One question now is how to get residents to embrace that process. Jenifer Alonzo, who teaches communications and theater arts at Old Dominion University, says the key is helping people understand the science behind what's happening to Norfolk. Alonzo says once people realize that more flooding is inevitable, they begin to consider the options.

JENIFER ALONZO: Okay. Maybe I can't continue to live in my house. Maybe something's going to happen to my neighborhood. Well, then can I envision what Norfolk looks like? Maybe it's better. Maybe it has these parts that are there for our use and then they flood, you know, the two or three times a year that we need them to, and yet our houses are protected.

HAMILTON: Retreating from the sea isn't a new idea. It's something that people in the UK and the Netherlands began trying more than a decade ago. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.