This week, residents of Hampton Roads suffered another reminder of the region’s wet future as a storm that moved off the North Carolina coast brought flooding, including days tidal flooding and rough seas in our communities.
For most residents, moving cars from low-lying areas, protecting homes and property, and navigating floodwaters was commonplace — simply part of life on the Virginia coast. For those new to the area, however, the sight of so much flooding under clear blue skies must have come as a shock.
Both groups can find some reassurance that the money is going towards flood protection programs and other building needs to protect at-risk neighborhoods from this insidious and increasingly frequent threat. But it is clear that time is running out and this region needs more funding, quickly, to tackle this problem.
Due to the orientation of some major waterways, Hampton Roads communities are particularly susceptible to storms that send strong winds blowing from the northeast. And that is precisely what happened last weekend as a low pressure system moved through the region and stalled offshore.
This affected homes, businesses and streets along the Elizabeth, Lynnhaven, Nansemond and Back rivers, among others, and led to a period of prolonged flooding, which worsened with each high tide. In Hampton and Norfolk, the situation was particularly troublesome before slackening at the weekend.
Remember the reverse problem in April 2019, when strong, sustained southerly winds inflicted destructive flooding in southern Virginia Beach, including Pungo and Sandbridge. Some residents were forced to evacuate their homes and some neighborhoods were isolated for days.
Such floods happen frequently and it will get worse. Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that coastal areas could see up to 1 foot of sea level rise by 2050 – the same amount recorded over the last century in about a quarter time. The situation here is aggravated by the subsidence or subsidence of the land.
It is estimated that, all told, Hampton Roads has approximately $40 billion worth of resilience projects needed to protect vulnerable communities and preserve this area as an attractive place to live and work. Different cities will need different amounts, of course, but the total figure is staggering.
Consider, for example, the $1.6 billion needed to keep Norfolk dry. Under the plan developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, floods such as those seen this month would be dealt with by higher levees, flood control valves, levees, pump stations and other resilience infrastructure to retain water. The city received $250 million from Washington through the federal infrastructure bill and allocated local funding, but has yet to secure funding for the entire project.
In Virginia Beach, voters smartly approved a referendum in November to issue $567.5 million in general obligation bonds to carry out more than 20 urgent flood projects. This will help tremendously, but falls far short of the estimated $1.7 billion to $3.8 billion needed to protect the entire city, according to a technical study published in 2019.
In Hampton, which has also seen some of the worst effects of recent storms, the city has benefited from Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which in December provided funding for four projects needed to deal with flooding.
So far, RGGI members have contributed $102 million to the Community Flood Preparedness Fund, although Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Republican lawmakers intend to pull the Commonwealth out of the program. In total, Virginia received $228 million from RGGI’s participation; the rest goes to energy assistance programs for low-income people.
The question is where will the money come from if not from the RGGI? With 40 billion dollars in needs, this region cannot finance resilience projects in dribs and drabs. This week has shown, once again, that funding is desperately needed now. The clock is ticking, the water is rising, and Hampton Roads can’t afford to wait.