At Water's Edge: Norfolk's Rising Flood Risk

  • July 28, 2017
  • by Don Belt

Flooded and rebuilt, then flooded and rebuilt again—and again—one American city is seeking new approaches for the future.

Pew project: Flood-Prepared Communities

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The flood arrived at dinnertime, just before dessert.

Karen Speights and her mother, who is 89, were in the dining room of their tidy yellow bungalow finishing off a meal of crab legs with a side of “Jeopardy,” waiting out the nor’easter that had brought heavy rain and winds sweeping into Norfolk, Virginia, that afternoon.

As she moved to clear the dishes, Speights heard a splash from under the table, and felt her feet grow wet inside soggy sneakers. Around her, water was bubbling up through the floor vents and flowing under the front door. She looked down and realized she was standing in a pool of saltwater.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she says. “It was one of those moments like, this is not really happening.” She and her mother grabbed everything of value they could carry—the throw rugs, stereo, artwork, floor lamps—and hustled upstairs.

The Speights family had lived in the house for more than five decades, but that storm, in November 2009, was the first time it had ever flooded.

They, like their neighbors, were aware of the potential for flooding—their front porch sits a little over 3 feet above sea level and perhaps 100 yards from a tidal wetlands linked to the nearby Elizabeth River, one of two sprawling rivers, along with hundreds of smaller rivers and creeks, that flow into the Chesapeake Bay around Norfolk and Hampton Roads, as the region’s 17 municipalities are collectively known. But the threat of flooding had always seemed manageable.

A few weeks after the storm, Speights and her mother moved out for several months while repairs were made—all paid for by their flood insurance.

Two years later, during Hurricane Irene, the house flooded again. Again their insurance, provided by the National Flood Insurance Program, paid out tens of thousands of dollars to repair the damage. Then in 2013, another flood. And again their insurance picked up the tab. “That’s three times in eight years, after 55 years of dry,” Speights says. “Things around here are definitely going downhill.”

That much is true, both figuratively and literally: Hampton Roads is actually sinking at the rate of about 7 inches every century, as the underlying geology of the area, fractured by a meteor impact 53 million years ago, continues to settle.

Meanwhile sea levels, up 18 inches in the past century, are projected to rise more than 5 ½ feet by 2100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

Almost half of Norfolk's official square footage consists of hundreds of rivers, creeks, and tributaries that flow around and through the southern Virginia city to empty into the Chesapeake Bay. Rising sea levels and Norfolk's particular geography makes the city's 250,000 residents all too familiar with flooding, the most expensive and frequent natural disaster in the United States. (© Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)

Small wonder, then, that the area around Norfolk has become a focal point in national efforts, including work by The Pew Charitable Trusts, to address the rising waters and develop creative ways to mitigate them—as well as to shore up the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now $25 billion in debt.

With the rising waters has come an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms and associated tidal surges that push water into vulnerable neighborhoods like the Speightses’. NOAA warns that Hampton Roads is more threatened by sea level rise than any other large metropolitan area in the U.S. except New Orleans. Considering that the area is home to 1.7 million people and the largest naval base in the world, efforts to mitigate and adapt have become a high priority.

The Department of Defense, for example, “must be aware of any potential adverse impacts [climate change] can have on our interests,” Secretary James Mattis wrote in an addendum to his Jan. 12 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The Department should be prepared to mitigate any consequences of a changing climate, including ensuring that our shipyards and installations will continue to function as required.”

Political leaders are debating the issue, however, and there are surely budgetary battles ahead over federal funds to support mitigation and adaptation programs, as well as other programs that aim to reduce risk such as the National Flood Insurance Program.

Shoring up a coastal city’s defenses is massively expensive. A few years ago, Norfolk hired a Dutch consulting firm to design an action plan that included state-of-the-art floodgates, raised roads, and a revamped system of storm drainage. For an investment of $1 billion—the city’s entire annual budget—the plan would fortify Norfolk against about a foot of sea level rise.

Norfolk is considering elements of those recommendations and is embracing a planning strategy based on resilience, even creating a municipal Office of Resiliency.

“Norfolk subscribes to the rather audacious idea that a city faced with a rising water environment should plan ahead for the future,” says George Homewood, the city’s longtime planning director. Homewood collaborated with a wide range of stakeholders—developers, community activists, environmental nongovernmental organizations, individuals, and a small army of planners and civil engineers—to develop Vision 2100, Norfolk’s long-term strategy to cope with flooding and sea level rise.

“Norfolk is a kind of canary in the coal mine,” says William A. “Skip” Stiles Jr., a high-energy optimist and former Capitol Hill staffer who directs Wetlands Watch, a grassroots organization that promotes wetlands protection in Norfolk and was a key participant in the Vision 2100 planning. “If we do this right, cities all over the country will be able to learn from us.”

Stiles is right to think big. More than 123 million people, about 39 percent of the U.S. population, live in coastal counties bordering oceans, rivers, or lakes. These areas, often heavily populated, have always been at risk from weather-related catastrophes such as floods and hurricanes—and now the threat, especially along the coasts, is increasing. From 1980 to 2013, flooding caused more than $260 billion in damage in the U.S., making it the costliest disaster threat in the nation. For the past decade, federal flood insurance claims have averaged $1.9 billion a year, up from about $700 million a year in the 1990s.

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

Elevated homes help residents avoid rising waters and subsequent property damage in Larchmont, a Norfolk neighborhood on a peninsula in the Lafayette River. In between, a neighboring rental property, used by college students, still sits below the flood zone. (© Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)

To help guide U.S. policy—and to reduce the effect of floods on homes, businesses, communities, infrastructure, natural habitats, and the economy—Pew has created a multifaceted initiative focused on four major areas of concern and potential progress: preserving and improving the federal flood insurance program, increasing funding for disaster preparedness and mitigation, evaluating future flood risks for facilities and infrastructure, and promoting nature-based solutions such as wetlands that can soak up rising waters (a sustainable alternative to hard bulkheads that can be inundated and undermined during storms).

“Many of our federal flood-risk policies are based on past events, but this is a time when we need to be looking toward the future,” says Laura Lightbody, who directs Pew’s flood-prepared communities initiative. “At Pew we’re looking to places like Norfolk, which have embraced resiliency and taken a proactive approach to reducing flood risk. People there are developing best practices that could help the federal government make better policy.”

On the ground, that means highlighting organizations such as Wetlands Watch. Cities struggling with flood management need role models, Stiles says, and the moxie shown by his adopted city, including its embrace of nature-based solutions, makes it a good candidate. “If Norfolk can do it, so can you,” he says, to anyone who’s listening.

An urban walkabout with Stiles is a master class in flood detection and management. He has a keen eye for the telling details of sea level rise: the standing water on side streets and parking lots, the salt-resistant vegetation such as spartina and iva sprouting in yellowing, flood-drowned lawns, the subtle differences in elevation that reveal Norfolk as a paved flood plain latticed with filled-in river and creek beds.

“A few inches can be the difference between flooding and dry ground,” he says, gesturing to the barely discernible contours of elevation that a nonresident might never notice.

The Speightses’ lot on Filer Street, for example, is a few feet lower than the yards across the street, which means that water tends to pool in the street and in their driveway. “I have to put on my rain boots to take the trash out, even when it’s a sunny day,” says Speights, with a shake of her head.

In Norfolk’s Vision 2100 map of at-risk areas, the Speightses’ neighborhood, Chesterfield Heights, is shown in high-alert yellow, the color used to identify established neighborhoods that experience frequent flooding where “the City should explore new and innovative technologies to help reduce flood risk and [extend] the resilience of key infrastructure.”

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

A home on Richmond Crescent, a street with many waterfront views, has been raised to nearly double its height to mitigate sea level rise—and lower flood insurance premiums. (© Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)

One day in 2014, more than 40 students from local universities—architecture students from Hampton and civil engineering undergraduates from Old Dominion—began canvassing Chesterfield Heights’ stately riverfront homes, many of them dating to the early 20th century, as well as the peripheral neighborhoods of low-income homeowners and renters. With their cameras and drawing pads, the students were doing just what Vision 2100 called for: searching for solutions to the flooding and sea level rise that have plagued the neighborhood for the past decade, especially the trouble spots where the water table is high and elevation is perilously low.

Guided by Stiles and their professors, and with an award from the NOAA-supported Virginia Sea Grant program, the students collaborated with local residents on a major study of Chesterfield Heights, and by 2015 they had generated a number of design concepts consistent with the goals of Vision 2100 and the kinds of flood-mitigation efforts that Pew is advocating.

The result was long on innovation and included structural solutions (home improvements such as regrading, cisterns, bioretention ponds, upgraded storm drains and pipes) and the creation of a “living shoreline” along the riverfront to reintroduce tidal, vegetated wetlands in place of rock sills and other man-made fortifications.

Norfolk officials recognized the student project with the city’s 2015 Environmental Resilience Award and encouraged the students to enter the Department of Housing and Urban Development National Disaster Resilience Competition. In January 2016, Virginia was awarded a $120 million grant from the department to explore the student designs for Chesterfield Heights.

“The key was working closely with the community,” says Zack Robinson, one of the Hampton University students. He now is an architect for a firm that is assessing the student designs and studying ways to put them into practice.

“In Chesterfield Heights, people really love their community. There’s also a very strong culture of helping your neighbor out, like in the old days. We tapped into that spirit during our many meetings with local residents, and they stepped up to help us help the people who are struggling with these new realities.” 

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

These homes under construction will be elevated, one way to mitigate rising waters in a flood plain. Other building adaptations include using cisterns, upgrading storm drains and pipes, and building natural bioretention ponds. Reintroducing vegetation along the wetlands is also under consideration in some Norfolk neighborhoods. (© Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)

One of those people is Karen Speights. She knows it’s only a matter of time before water again comes splashing under her front door and up through the heating vents in her living room floor. In the interim, her flood insurance has surged to $4,200 a year, with further increases of 5 to 18 percent already announced. She notes that her next-door neighbor, whose house is newer and was built a few more feet off the ground, pays only $600 annually for flood insurance.

Along with her neighbors, she worries that Congress may take an ax to the National Flood Insurance

Program, which provides federally backed coverage for homeowners and small businesses in more than

22,000 communities across the country. With its deep debt, the program may be unsustainable. Pew is urging continuation of the program and encouraging communities to improve management of the most flood-prone areas.

Speights also worries about what will become of the lovely little house she grew up in, where she and her mother still live. In its current state, in the flood zone, it would be nearly impossible to sell, even if she wanted to. She loves living in Chesterfield Heights, where people still rock on the front porch in the evenings and greet the neighbors passing by.

“I’m an optimist,” Speights says. Maybe Zack Robinson and his architect friends will figure out a way to keep Filer Street above water, she says, or will need a homeowner volunteer to try out some innovative new technology to keep the floods at bay.

“They are going to be experimenting and coming up with solutions, and I’d like to be part of that success story. I own the property, and maybe I can find the resources to tear the house down and rebuild one of these days. That’s pretty exciting to think about.”

That day is at least two years away, she figures. In the meantime, she’s just trying keep her perspective, like her mother—who keeps one eye on the moon and the other on the Weather Channel.

“We used to sit in our houses, watching TV, and cry for those poor people in other countries sitting on their rooftops surrounded by a flood,” Speights says. “Now that’s the local news—it’s happening right here in Norfolk, and we’re all in it together.”

It’s time to get creative, she says. And for her, only one option is off the table.

“You can’t just pretend it’s not happening.”

Trust Magazine Summer 2017

Water pools on a street in frequently flooded Larchmont-Edgewater, a neighborhood built on two peninsulas. After storms, water often lingers here because it simply has nowhere else to go. (© Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images Reportage)


After the Fact: The Financial Toll of Flooding—Part 1

Host Dan LeDuc discusses the flood that devastated Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010 with Roger Lindsey, chairman of the Tennessee Association of Floodplain Management and program manager for Nashville’s Metro Water Services, and Laura Lightbody, who directs Pew’s flood-prepared communities work.