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Rising sea puts Virginia city on climate change front-line

As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is disrupting life in Norfolk and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming.
Image: The city of Norfolk, Va., is spending a lot of money to raise Richmond Crescent by 18 inches to avert routine flooding at high tide.
The city of Norfolk, Va., is spending a lot of money to raise Richmond Crescent by 18 inches to avert routine flooding at high tide. Matthew Eich for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

In this section of the Larchmont neighborhood, built in a sharp “u” around a bay off the Lafayette River, residents pay close attention to the lunar calendar, much as other suburbanites might attend to the daily flow of commuter traffic.

If the moon is going to be full the night before Hazel Peck needs her car, for example, she parks it on a parallel block, away from the river. The next morning, she walks through a neighbor’s backyard to avoid the two-to-three-foot-deep puddle that routinely accumulates on her street after high tides.

For Ms. Peck and her neighbors, it is the only way to live with the encroaching sea.

As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming.

But Norfolk is worse off. Situated just west of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, it is bordered on three sides by water, including several rivers, like the Lafayette, that are actually long tidal streams that feed into the bay and eventually the ocean.

Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting.

In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.

Subject of friction
Climate change is a subject of friction in Virginia. The state’s attorney general, Ken T. Cuccinelli II, is trying to prove that a prominent climate scientist engaged in fraud when he was a researcher at the University of Virginia.

But the residents of coastal neighborhoods here are less interested in the debate than in the real-time consequences of a rise in sea level.

When Ms. Peck, now 75 and a caretaker to her husband, moved here 40 years ago, tidal flooding was an occasional hazard.

“Last month,” she said recently, “there were eight or nine days the tide was so doggone high it was difficult to drive.”

Larchmont residents have relentlessly lobbied the city to address the problem, and last summer it broke ground on a project to raise the street around the “u” by 18 inches and to readjust the angle of the storm drains so that when the river rises, the water does not back up into the street.

The city will also turn a park at the edge of the river back into wetlands — it is now too saline for lawn grass to grow anyway. The cost for the work on this one short stretch is $1.25 million.

The expensive reclamation project is popular in Larchmont, but it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion.

To William Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a local conservation group, the project is well meaning but absurd.

Mr. Stiles points out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already spent $144,000 in recent years to raise each of six houses on the block.

At this pace of spending, he argues, there is no way taxpayers will recoup their investment.

“If sea level is a constant, your coastal infrastructure is your most valuable real estate, and it makes sense to invest in it,” Mr. Stiles said, “but with sea level rising, it becomes a money pit.”

'Front lines of climate change'

Many Norfolk residents hope their problems will serve as a warning.

“We are the front lines of climate change,” said Jim Schultz, a science and technology writer who lives on Richmond Crescent near Ms. Peck. “No one who has a house here is a skeptic.”

Politics aside, the city of Norfolk is tackling the sea-rise problem head on. In August, the Public Works Department briefed the City Council on the seriousness of the situation, and Mayor Paul D. Fraim has acknowledged that if the sea continues rising, the city might actually have to create “retreat” zones.

Kristen Lentz, the acting director of public works, prefers to think of these contingency plans as new zoning opportunities.

“If we plan land use in a way that understands certain areas are prone to flooding,” Ms. Lentz said, “we can put parks in those areas. It would make the areas adjacent to the coast available to more people. It could be a win-win for the environment and community at large and makes smart use of our coastline.”

Ms. Lentz believes that if Norfolk can manage the flooding well, it will have a first-mover advantage and be able to market its expertise to other communities as they face similar problems.

But she also acknowledges that for the businesses and homes entrenched on the coast, such a step could be costly, and that the city has no money yet to pay them to move.

In the short run, the city’s goal is just to pick its flood-mitigation projects more strategically. “We need to look broadly and not just act piecemeal,” Ms. Lentz said, referring to Larchmont.

To this end, Norfolk has hired the Dutch firm Fugro to evaluate options like inflatable dams and storm-surge floodgates at the entrances to waterways.

But to judge by the strong preference in Larchmont for action at any cost, it may not be easy for the city to choose which neighborhoods might be passed over for projects.

Neighborhood residents lobbied hard for the 18-inch lifting of their roadway, even though they know it will offer not much protection from storms, which are also becoming more frequent and fearsome. Many say that housing values in the neighborhood have plummeted and that this is the only way to stabilize them.

Others like Mr. Schultz support the construction, even though they think the results will be very temporary indeed.

“The fact is that there is not enough engineering to go around to mitigate the rising sea,” he said. “For us, it is the bitter reality of trying to live in a world that is getting warmer and wetter.”

This article, headlined "Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea" first appeared in The New York Times