At risk from rising seas, Norfolk, Virginia, plans massive, controversial floodwall – NPR

Ground level rendering of proposed pump station and expanded flood wall along the Elizabeth River (courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers | City of Norfolk, via
Ground level rendering of proposed pump station and expanded flood wall along the Elizabeth River (courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers | City of Norfolk, via

Kim Sudderth loves the “porch culture” of Norfolk’s tight-knit Berkley area.

She’s lived in the historically Black neighborhood for five years, and knows the names of almost everyone on her block. They often wave to each other over morning coffee.

The community dates back to shortly after the Civil War, and many of the houses – including Sudderth’s – are at least a century old. Residents cherish the strong sense of history and community.

But there’s a downside: many of the neighborhood’s streets flood just about every time it rains.

“It’s kind of a way of life,” Sudderth said. “We’re doing our best to work with the water.”

On a recent muggy morning, she pointed to the evidence on her street corner: standing water still pooled from a downpour a few days prior. On rainy days, she said, the flooding can be bad enough that someone might lose their car.

That kind of flooding disrupts life all over Norfolk during rainstorms or even high tides — swamping intersections, ruining cars and cutting some neighborhoods off from the rest of the city. Climate change is making the problem worse. Sea levels are rising faster in Norfolk than anywhere else on the East Coast, driven by a combination of warming oceans and sinking land in the region.

The city is now moving forward with a massive floodwall project to protect itself, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project will include tide gates, levees, pump stations and nature-based features like oyster reefs and vegetation along the shoreline. It’s one of the biggest infrastructure efforts in city history – and an example of projects the Corps has proposed up and down the U.S. coastline, from New York to Texas.

But the $2.6 billion project largely won’t protect neighborhoods like Sudderth’s from the regular flooding they already experience.

Instead, the project is meant to shield the city from a catastrophic storm. It specifically targets storm surge, the abnormal rush of water generated during major storms like hurricanes.

“We should call it the catastrophe wall or the hurricane wall, because floodwall is kind of a misleading statement,” said Jay Ford, Virginia policy advisor with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The nonprofit is one of several local groups reluctantly fighting the project.

While Ford and other critics agree that major storms pose a serious threat to the city, they argue it’s shortsighted to spend billions of dollars on a project that doesn’t address existing flooding – especially because that flooding is expected to worsen as climate change drives more intense rain and higher sea levels.

“For a lot of folks in Hampton Roads, sea level rise means the sun is out and you’re just trying to get your kid to school but for some reason there is a completely flooded road,” Ford said. “This project won’t do anything to alleviate that.”

Sudderth and her neighbors have another concern: The original floodwall design didn’t reach several majority-Black communities across the Elizabeth River from downtown Norfolk – including Berkley.

“We’re going to be left out,” Sudderth said she thought when she first learned about the plan.

Critics say the project exemplifies flaws in how the federal government approaches major flood infrastructure.

And the debates happening in Norfolk are an example of conversations that will increasingly play out across the nation, as climate change imposes major new costs on coastal communities, said Rob Young, a geologist who studies coastal engineering at Western Carolina University.

Local officials need to think hard about how to prioritize limited resources, Young said: “We know we don’t have all the money in the world.”

For their part, city officials see the floodwall project as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for Norfolk to protect itself.

Congress recently earmarked $400 million for the project, in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. If the city doesn’t take advantage of that federal funding, it could lose its opportunity – and a major hurricane could be disastrous, said Kyle Spencer, the city’s chief resilience officer.

“The cost of not doing this is far, far greater than the cost of doing it,” Spencer said…


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