The Water Is Coming

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Brian Brennan looks out at the view from the Unitarian Church of Norfolk. “The shoreline has changed,” he says.

For years, grass grew up to the curb of the Yarmouth Street church, which sits along the Smith Creek tidal basin. But the grounds have been fouled so often with mucky river water that much of it has died. In the yard, you can see the color change from green to brown.

“The tidal flooding is such now that just about every high tide, the road in front of our church is flooded in places six inches to a foot deep,” UCN’s educational director says. To make sure that congregational members are fully informed about conditions, the staff now prints tidal predictions in its weekly bulletin and on its web site.

Sitting across from the upscale Hague neighborhood, near the Chrysler Museum, the church’s 112-year-old building has flooded from storms over the years, most recently from a Nor’easter five years ago. “It busted our boiler. We lost heat for about a month,” Brennan recalls. Since that flood, intruding water has been a persistent presence, and jokes about taking a raft or canoe to Sunday service have stopped being funny.

The Unitarian Church’s issues have made it something of a poster child for the problems of sea level rise in the region. “This is happening with greater frequency across Hampton Roads and it isn’t going away,” says Mike Tidwell, executive director of The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN). The Maryland-based advocacy group recently held a press conference at the church to introduce a new report on the dangers faced by encroaching water called “Safe Coast Virginia.”

“This so-called ‘nuisance flooding’ is happening in coastal areas along the East Coast,” Tidwell maintains. “This is not from a storm surge, or heavy rain, this is flat out sea level rise, and it’s getting closer to the people. If we were to add to it a really heavy rain or storm, we’re talking about serious damage that could occur ... so right now the region is counting on luck to protect itself.”

Erik H. Neil, the new director and president of the Chrysler Museum, was working at Tulane University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged that city in 2005. “I take the threat very seriously,” he says, adding that long-term flooding concerns were addressed in the museum’s recent $24 million renovation, before he arrived. “All of the mechanicals were taken out of the basement and moved up high to the third floor. There’s nothing in the basement now.” Emergency procedures have been updated and an attachable floodgate is at the ready for the front door. The museum is already elevated, he says, “but this gives us an extra couple of feet.”

For now, the Chrysler is spared much of the Unitarian church’s incessant flooding. “I don’t know what the geographical situation is,” Neil says. “They are only about 100, 200 yards away from us but their situation is dramatically worse than ours. It’s a combination of the way the inlet is right there and where the water is going. They get flooded quite regularly, even if there’s nothing going on.”

Brian Brennan says that the church, long overdue for relocation, is now looking for a new sanctuary.

“We need to move. But what we’re facing here is what’s going to be facing the rest of the region. It’s not going away. The water is going to keep coming.”

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