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Battleground Dispatches: Norfolk Readies for Future Storms, Sea Level Rise

December 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
When Hurricane Sandy hit a week before Election Day, it helped surface the issue of rising sea levels and resulting vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding. In conjunction with WHRO, Mike Melia travels to Norfolk, Va., where the mayor must decide whether or not to rebuild parts of the city that may be unlivable in 15 years.
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MIKE MELIA: When residents of this port city wake up, even if there wasn’t a storm that night, they regularly find some streets flooded simply from high tides.

It is a far cry from the storm surges brought by Sandy further up the coast, but that superstorm, which hit the week before Election Day, brought to the surface the issue of rising sea levels, the vulnerability of coastal cities and what can be done to protect them.

In national exit polls, 64 percent of voters said that President Obama’s response to the hurricane was a factor in their decision.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more can we do.

MIKE MELIA: Mr. Obama might look to Norfolk, where they have been having those conversations for years.

MAYOR PAUL FRAIM, D-Norfolk, Va.: As we get more high tides and tides seem to get higher, and we get more of these storms and they seem to come with a little more fury, we get more and more water in our city as the days go by. And so we are taking it very seriously. We talk about it nearly monthly. And we are planning for it.

MIKE MELIA: Mayor Paul Fraim, a Democrat, has been leading the charge and was the first elected official in the country to say parts of his city might not be livable in 15 years.

PAUL FRAIM: We are raising homes. We are raising roads. But we are also retreating very slowly from some of the shoreline, so we don’t spend money raising houses so that, when the next storm comes through here, they will be damaged again.

MIKE MELIA: Mr. Obama won the battleground state of Virginia 51 percent to 48 percent over Mitt Romney. His victory was helped by taking 56 percent of the vote in the state’s southeast Tidewater region that is home to Norfolk.

Here, where streets like this are frequently underwater, some people are hoping the election means political debate about climate change may be over.

SKIP STILES, Wetlands Watch: In the last month, in the month of October, we have seen — this neighborhood has flooded three times.

MIKE MELIA: Skip Stiles heads Wetlands Watch, a local environmental group that works throughout the state. He took us to another vulnerable area downtown.

SKIP STILES: This is an old apartment building. It has been here since 1904. So, the sort of abstract notion of, oh, we have had a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise over the last 100 years, you can sort of mark it against this building, because we had a nor’easter in 2006 that came about here. It’s about where Sandy came.

And if you think about it, 100 years ago, that same storm would have been a foot-and-a-half down. It wouldn’t even have touched this building.

And the problem is, 100 years going forward, if you go up three feet, in 100 years, this sort of middle-of-the-road nor’easter is suddenly as high as the storm of record that we had in 1933.

MIKE MELIA: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finds Norfolk is the second most vulnerable area its size to sea level rise in the country, right behind New Orleans.

Norfolk is particularly prone to flooding because of its location, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay and the James River. It is also slowly sinking. The city is home to roughly 250,000 people, a major port and the world’s largest naval base. It is of critical importance to our national security. Nearly 45 percent of the city’s economy is tied to defense spending.

And in response to sea level rise, the Navy has been replacing 14 piers, at a cost of $35 million to $40 million apiece.

LARRY ATKINSON,OldDominionUniversity: The sea level here is coming up for lots of reasons. There is just no reason for it to go down. It just keeps coming up.

MIKE MELIA: Larry Atkinson heads the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Institute at OldDominionUniversity.

LARRY ATKINSON: Well, there is kind of anecdotal evidence, and then there is real evidence from the tide gauges that we have. I mean, we can measure this. It’s — the science is simple.

MIKE MELIA: Atkinson is part of a team of scientists the state of Virginia has hired to study flooding. An early draft of the bill in the state assembly that funded the study drew criticism from some conservatives. The Virginia Tea Party described the study on its website as — quote — “more wasted tax dollars for more ridiculous studies designed to separate us from our money and control all land and water use.”

The final bill avoided the phrases sea level rise and climate change and won overwhelming bipartisan support this year.

CHRIS STOLLE, R-Va., state delegate: Some people have tried to spin it into a political issue because we changed the wording from sea level rise to flooding.

MIKE MELIA: Republican state Delegate Chris Stolle changed the language in the legislation. He argues the problem is real, no matter what you call it.

CHRIS STOLLE: We wanted this study not to get caught up in that discussion of sea level rise.

We want to know, what are we going to do for the folks here in Norfolk and Tidewater and Virginia Beach to stop the water from coming in their doors?

MIKE MELIA: To do that, Norfolk is taking a number of steps to protect its residents and keep them dry. But when a big storm does hit, the greatest challenge this city faces is getting its vulnerable residents to safety in time.

JIM REDICK, Norfolk Office of Emergency Management: It would take at least 36 hours to get the folks out there who we identify in those low-lying areas to get out.

MIKE MELIA: Jim Redick directs Norfolk’s Office of Emergency Management.

JIM REDICK: And we know that it is going to be a challenge for folks to heed the warning, because, again, chances are it will be a bright sunny day. Folks won’t want to leave.

MIKE MELIA: Bob Parsons lives in one of the most vulnerable areas of the city. He’s kept track with pictures of the many times water has lapped up to his door, as it did with Sandy, even though that storm landed much further north.

BOB PARSONS, resident of Norfolk, Va.: If Sandy were to come close or directly into Norfolk, I think we’d all be in big trouble. I think most of the city would be underwater. There is no way out of here, unless you leave days and days ahead of the storm.

MIKE MELIA: But he’s the type of resident that worries emergency manager Redick most.

BOB PARSONS: Personally, I am not inclined to leave until someone in a boat pulls up to the front door and says, get in. Otherwise, we will stay on the second floor and hope we stay above it.

MIKE MELIA: From the markers he keeps on his garage door of water lines in the past, when a big storm hits, staying above the surge might be difficult.

BOB PARSONS: The high water marks on my garage are probably not a good selling point for the property, but I like to have an idea and keep a record of what we have here. And I started keeping these records in 2003 for Isabel.

MIKE MELIA: Because Norfolk is nearly surrounded by water, the main ways out of the area in an emergency funnel to a set of just a few tunnels and bridges.

DR. TERRY WHIBLEY, Norfolk City Council: Our traffic is horrific in this area. And so, when you compound the traffic and the flooding at certain times of the year during storms, it really is a — the perfect storm.

MIKE MELIA: Dr. Terry Whibley is a physician in town and on the City Council.

TERRY WHIBLEY: We have so much to do and we have so many needs, that we are considered one of the forerunners. This is always the ultimate irony, but we have, I think, taken good measures to try and figure out what is going to be our best approach.

MIKE MELIA: Four years ago, the city hired the Dutch engineering firm Fugro to study the threats to the city.

KEVIN SMITH, Fugro: The focus of our efforts and our study and evaluations are really on coastal flooding.

MIKE MELIA: Kevin Smith is Fugro’s chief engineer on the project.

KEVIN SMITH: We have evaluated up to a 100-year storm event.

MIKE MELIA: And what would be the impact on the city?

KEVIN SMITH: The impact is significant.

MIKE MELIA: They have recommended building seawalls and elevating homes. The price tag would be a little more than $1 billion. For that, the city will need help from the state and federal government.

The election following Sandy brought a renewed focus on bipartisanship and the need to invest in storm protection. But Mayor Fraim will be competing with other coastal areas to secure much need federal dollars.

PAUL FRAIM: There is a huge investment by the nation in its national defense here. And it’s — we are the only home for nuclear aircraft carriers on the entire AtlanticCoast.

We are worth preserving, for sure. Something is happening to us. We sense it. We know it. We have studied it. And now we are trying to prepare for it.

MIKE MELIA: With the cost of repairing the damage from Sandy now totaling more than $50 billion for New York and New Jersey alone, cities like Norfolk are working hard to invest to protect themselves before the next big storm hits.