The Water Is Coming

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In the 135-page document, Hershner and his associate Molly Mitchell found, as he summarizes, “a problem everywhere ... and there’s not much we can do to stop the flooding that’s going to occur; it’s more of a matter of adapting to what’s inevitable at this point.”

The VIMS study says that it will take a concentrated planning effort in order to avoid “catastrophic flooding” that will worsen over the next 50years. It recommended enacting measures relating to management (like new zoning laws), accommodation (raising infrastructure and enhancing evacuation plans), and protection (building seawalls and levees). And it reiterated that the problem of sea level rise along Coastal Virginia is acute partly because the area is also sinking.

“Because we are sinking, the rate of change here in Hampton Roads is faster than almost everywhere else on the East Coast, all but New Orleans,” says Hershner. “When you look at the rate of change, and what is likely to be impacted in terms of human development, we’re second to New York City in areas that are at risk for flooding ... for Hampton Roads, we are at the point of it being a crisis.”

In 2012, Virginia was ranked by the Natural Resources Defense Council as one of the states “largely unprepared and lagging behind” on preparedness for sea level rise. People are starting to wake up now, Hershner says, adding that the mayors of the affected coastal cities have been the most outfront. He credits Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, in particular, as being “one of the first public officials willing to stand up and say this is a problem, this isn’t something to play politics with. We need to figure out what we’re going to do.’ And we know that, for Norfolk, the future is not really rosy. There will be real dramatic impacts there and so he’s been willing to be direct and I think that has helped to bring attention to this.”

“We’ve essentially accepted the fact that it’s a high-priority, high-impact problem for which we need a plan like any other hazard,” admits Jim Redick, the director of Norfolk’s Division of Emergency Management. “We’re going to plan for it just like hurricanes and thunderstorms.” He says that a “Flood Group” meeting happens weekly or bi-weekly between different city departments, and two different “citizen stakeholder” panels meet regularly to coordinate mitigation efforts and strategies.

“The challenge is first setting realistic expectations, making critical decisions now when they really won’t pay off until a decade or two or three down the road. One of the things I push for is disaster recovery planning, so instead of waiting to get hit by [the next Hurricane] Sandy, and making critical decisions on where we rebuild at that point, let’s do that now with community input. And in a lot of cases, that’s challenging in and of itself.”

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