Moving past short-term fixes
Norfolk has pieced together a flood response with a $6 million annual budget for storm water drains and water pumping stations, but Tom McNeilan, a Fugro vice president, firmly told officials that those Band-Aid fixes can no longer cover the wound.
The Fugro and Timmons studies are part of a strategy to ask state legislators and Congress for more than $1 billion for floodgates and other barriers to be built over the next 30 years.
It would be a huge outlay for such a small city, particularly in a state where lawmakers recently bowed to pressure from tea party political activists and refused to allow the words “sea level” and “climate change” in a recommendation for a study of their impact on the Virginia coast, according to the Virginian-Pilot. But Norfolk’s importance to Virginia and the nation is far greater than its size.
“Norfolk is the corporate, cultural and entertainment hub of the southern commonwealth,” with 100,000 commuters going in and out daily, Williams said. Its hospitals and two universities stand out in Hampton Roads.
The city is also home to Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, and many city residents work at the only shipyards in the nation capable of building aircraft carriers. Frequent flooding forces workers to turn away from those shipyards, some of which also modernize submarines.
Still, even if the money is granted, flood walls cannot protect every residence in every community, and some homeowners might find themselves on the wrong side of a closed wall when storm waters rise.
In a segment on the PBS program “Need to Know” that aired in April, Mayor Paul Fraim said Norfolk might have to establish retreat zones in “areas of the city that will contain water all the time” in the next 20 to 30 years.
Fraim did not respond to requests for comment about his remarks but said on the program that he was the first seated mayor in the nation to acknowledge that part of his city might need to be abandoned.
Area scientists and activists who watched the show described the interview as a bold truth. “You’re going to be subject to more flooding over the years,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which sits in a flood zone on a map drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“In the long run, yes, all areas cannot be protected from flooding,” Atkinson said. “There might be federal buyouts of people, where people’s homes are bought and people are moved. It’s not a happy situation.”
Williams, however, disagreed, saying the currently proposed flood protections for an area called the Hague and Pretty Lake will guard all homes.
In the Larchmont area by the Lafayette River, where numerous “for sale” signs on white posts spring up in yards like mushrooms after every flood, Williams said more study is needed to determine how to protect homeowners.
Faella is not sure Larchmont can wait that long. She and her husband elevated their rebuilt house at a cost of about $25,000. Navigating the state and federal bureaucracy for a FEMA and Small Business Administration loan was a nightmare, she said.
The city needs to move decisively and “assess which neighborhoods it wants to save,” and which they have to abandon, she said.
“I wanted to stay in my house forever,” said Faella, “but the reality is that if you can’t get to your street, and you can’t sell your house, what are you going to do?”