More than 200 places of worship at risk from coastal flooding in Hampton Roads

Faith leaders pushing for billions in federal help
A wooden cross with sky
Posted at 6:26 AM, Apr 27, 2022

NORFOLK, VA. - When the heavens open up and the rains come down, a church stands as a place of refuge.

"If the floodwaters are rising fast, get to the church. It's a little bit higher," says Reverend Mark Byrd, Senior Pastor of New Life Metropolitan Community Church in Norfolk.

"But that's a higher ground, a sanctuary, if you will, that we may not be able to claim," Byrd adds.

The church, on Sunset Drive, sits about a mile off of the Chesapeake Bay. But Reverend Byrd worries it is not immune to the rising threat of coastal flooding brought on by sea level rise.

"I'm afraid we become complacent, thinking that dealing with flooding and nuisance flooding, even some of the damage and disruption we have, is just what it means to live in Hampton Roads. But when we look at this report, that was unsettling," Reverend Byrd tells News 3's, Blaine Stewart.

That report shows his is one of the dozens of churches, synagogues, and mosques in Norfolk threatened by sea level rise. In all, about 225 across Hampton Roads, including Christ and Saint Luke's in Ghent, where Norfolk Councilwoman Andria McClellan worships, are threatened by sea level rise. Click here for the interactive map.

"The fact that you get ready for church, and part of getting ready is to check the tides, that's unusual," McClellan said at a news conference along Norfolk's Hague, an area prone to coastal flooding.

Lawmakers like McClellan and State Delegate Nadarius Clark are joining with faith leaders to push Washington for billions of dollars in climate change investments.

"Norfolk is under sea level. We know that it's going to continue to sink. So, we have to put things in place to combat it now," Clark says.

In 2019, Old Dominion University conducted its Blue Line Project, aimed at better illustrating the risks sea level rise and coastal flooding pose to our area. Doctor Tom Allen, a professor and leader of the Climate and Sea Level Rise Program at ODU, warns of Norfolk's fate through the rest of this century.

"What we'll see in that scenario is a not so great situation where a lot of our secondary streets are flooded on a daily basis with the high tide," Doctor Allen predicts.

He tells News 3 this flooding would happen not only when it rains or there's a coastal storm, but during every high tide, every day. The streets we depend on to get to work or church would be underwater. Dr. Allen points to drainage and shoreline improvements in Norfolk and theflood protection program just approved in Virginia Beach as ways to help stem the rising tide.

Back at his church, Reverend Byrd just prays we haven't already lost the war.

"It may surprise some people that churches are talking about climate issues and justice issues. But really, that's part of the core of our faith, too," he said.