The Water Is Coming



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There are other considerations too, says Michelle Covi of the Center for Sea Level Rise at Old Dominion University. “If Norfolk is successful in building a giant wall, what does that mean for Portsmouth? If one city is impacted, others are. No one is isolated. We’re all in this together.” While Norfolk has been getting most of the media attention, Covi says that Virginia Beach has the national distinction of having the most homes residing in a designated flood zone. 

“These are very old cities, and they’ve developed in such a way that they’ve done a lot of land filling. There are roads and buildings that are sitting on what would have been creeks years ago, so the water is going back to the way it was.”  

ODU has been coordinating between different local, state and federal agencies to strategize solutions. It began its Center For Sea Level Rise in 2010 as a way of looking at all of the different challenges of future flooding. “There is an emergency management component and a land use planning component,” Covi says. “And questions about which neighborhoods are the most vulnerable, not only because of location but because of demographic characteristics. How should we make decisions, how do we talk with the military? There are a lot of components to this.”

Protecting the area is also a matter of national security as it houses the world’s largest Naval Base. The Department of Defense concluded in 2013 that there would be “a more significant challenge for [Naval Station Norfolk] than will be experienced at most other installations in the face of climate change.” More than 10 percent of Naval Station Norfolk lies below five feet, and the percentage is higher at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and Langley-Fort Eustis.

Hurricane Isabel hits Virginia Beach in 2003Former Navy Captain Joe Bouchard was the commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk from 2001 to 2003, when problems started to become evident. “The base used to flood all the time. We spent millions adapting to sea level rise,” he says. That included new expensive piers, storm drainage systems and a floodgate. “The base flooded two or three feet deep with Hurricane Isabel in 2003,” he says. “And that was a pretty wimpy Category 1 hurricane. So anything bigger than that, Category 2 or 3, and we’re facing all kinds of problems.”

Bouchard, who served in the Virginia House of Delegates after his retirement, sat on the state’s original Climate Commission in 2008. Safeguarding a base isn’t enough, he says. “The Navy can spend a billion dollars on Naval Station Norfolk to protect itself from sea level rise, and the base will still be lost if the surrounding community isn’t doing the right thing. No base is self-sufficient. It gets all of the critical infrastructure from the local region ... electric power, fresh water, a sanitation system, telecommunications and, of particular importance, the road system.”

The military has started to treat this the same as an invading army, Bouchard says. When the Army Corps of Engineers did an assessment [in 2012] on the impact of sea level rise on Naval Stations, it convinced a lot of military brass of the danger, he says. “They had no background for stuff like this,” says Bouchard.

Mike Tidwell says there are ways to minimize the damage. “We can improve evacuation preparedness, change building codes so that nobody is building in places we are pretty sure will be underwater in the coming decades. We need to advocate for changes in coastal insurance systems so we aren’t encouraging people to build in areas that will be permanently underwater.” Much of the adaptation will cost money, he notes. “It’s going to require a lot of money.”

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