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How One U.S. Coastal City Is Facing the Hard Fact that the Waters Are Rising

Virginia has no state policy on climate change. But on the coast – where rising seas threaten military bases, ports, homes and beaches – flooding is on everyone's mind.

Photo Credit: Michael Pendergrass/US Navy


NORFOLK, Va. – Water is inescapable in Virginia's second-largest city, home to the world's biggest naval base, three major port facilities and public and private shipyards. Norfolk is nearly surrounded by water: it sits at the mouth of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the junction of the Elizabeth and James Rivers. Canals and creeks penetrate into many neighborhoods, and home sale listings highlight water access – "Within 50 feet of H2O – You can canoe and kayak!"

Yet as much as water is a resource in Norfolk and the surrounding area, known as Hampton Roads, it also represents a threat.

City and county leaders, already burdened with typical tasks of local governance  – zoning, construction permits, liquor licenses, school board appointments – are also weighing multi-million-dollar flood control projects to keep the ocean at a livable distance. 

While they struggle to pull together know-how and funding, those with the broader view and resources – state agencies – are absent from the discussions: In a  study released earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked Virginia as one of 29 states that were "largely unprepared and lagging behind" on planning for climate change at the state level.

In many ways the problem is already upon Norfolk. The Atlantic Ocean off Virginia's coast is rising a quarter of an inch annually, equivalent to two feet in 100 years – faster than anywhere else in the United States except for coastal Louisiana. The ocean at Sewells Point, site of the Norfolk Naval Station, rose 14.5 inches between 1930 and 2010. And that's likely to accelerate. Last month the U.S. Geological Survey reported that sea levels are rising more quickly along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts than globally, possibly as a result of slowing Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns.

Political platform

Planning for climate change is not a winning political platform in Virginia. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said in 2010 that "to what degree [climate change] is attributable to manmade causes is a matter I will leave up to the experts," and shelved a climate change action plan proposed by a commission under his Democratic predecessor. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made headlines in 2010 for investigating University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann, and again this year for trying unsuccessfully to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. 

But whatever state leaders think of climate change, local officials find they can't ignore increasingly apparent  street-level impacts

Most of Norfolk is less than 15 feet above sea level, and low-lying neighborhoods already flood regularly when heavy rains combine with high tides, swamping storm-water systems. The worst flooding in memory happened in 1933, when a hurricane and five-foot storm surge left residents wading thigh-deep on downtown streets. If sea levels rise between two and five feet in the area by 2100, as recent studies predict, that could become routine. Even now, city maps show that the surge from a Category Three hurricane would inundate nearly the entire city. 

In the wettest zones, streets are studded with "for sale" signs. "I know people who can't find buyers for their houses," said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a statewide advocacy group, on a drive through a historic neighborhood called The Hague. The area fronts on a canal and floods regularly. Telltale signs are easy to spot. Evaporating salt water leaves rusty stains on street curbs. Repeated overflows have killed grass in waterfront parks, leaving stretches of bare ground. Spartina, a salt-tolerant marsh grass, is sprouting on slopes above canals and marinas.

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