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Hampton Roads could see record coastal flooding over the next decade, study warns

Norfolk working to protect neighborhoods from rising water
Studies show there may be more water on the surface of the moon than previously thought
A truck drives through a flooded intersection in Norfolk, Virginia
Posted at 6:44 AM, Aug 06, 2021

NORFOLK, Va. - Hampton Roads' coastal flooding threat could grow significantly over the next several years, according to new research from NASA's Sea Level Change Science Team and the University of Hawaii.

Ben Hamlington, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns, "I think it's important to consider that it's not going to necessarily be a gradual increase."

The study, published in July, warns upcoming changes in the moon's orbit could lead to record flooding on Earth in the next decade. The moon "wobble" is a natural occurrence that happens over time. The moon's gravitational pull creates our tides on Earth, so any fluctuation in its orbit has a direct impact on how high the water rises along our coast.

For an area already used to dealing with nuisance or "sunny-day flooding," the possibility of an increased flood threat is unwelcome news.

"It's possible we're going to have these periods of very rapid increases where you go from having it a few times a year to many times, 100 times a year at high tide," Hamlington predicts. "It just becomes that much more difficult to live with."

Combined with Hampton Roads' existing flood threat and constant sea-level rise, any additional flooding caused by the moon's change in orbit could be devastating for our area.

"In our region, there's a very, very fine line between what is nuisance flooding, and what really starts to impact us in our daily lives," explains Jeff Orrock, Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Virginia.

Over the years, Orrock and his team have tracked the slow but steady rise of our sea level and the devastating impact it can have.

"The creep is sometimes not as noticeable, but then all of a sudden a storm hits and you're like, 'Wow, that was a lot of water,'" Orrock says.

What concerns meteorologists Orrock about Hampton Roads' future is our recent past. The last time our area experienced a major, days-long tidal flooding event was during the 2009 nor'easter. Then, flooded-out cars floated in waist-deep water down Boush Street.

Orrock believes we will see images like those again.

"We really are getting to the point where statistically, we're getting a little bit overdue for another big storm to really push these tides up pretty high," Orrock said.

Stopping the Surge

What are cities doing to protect neighborhoods from the rising threat of a significant coastal flood? In the Chesterfield Heights community, city crews are tearing up streets to build what could be Norfolk's neighborhood of the future.

"I think it's an enormous game changer. I mean, this is a 100-year-old neighborhood that we want to see around for well over 100 years after that," Doug Beaver, Norfolk's chief resilience officer says.

Beaver and his team are leading the work that's part of the Ohio Creek Watershed Project. Through a grant, the federal government is sinking $112 million into this neighborhood along the Eastern branch of the Elizabeth River, in the shadow of Interstate 264 and the Campostella Bridge.

According to the City of Norfolk's website, the watershed includes "two residential, predominantly African American neighborhoods with civic leagues and a strong community identity: Historic Chesterfield Heights with over 400 houses on the Historic National Register; and Grandy Village, which includes a public housing community with more than 300 units."

The plan is to better protect those residents from the rising flood threat. Construction began in early 2020 and is expected to be complete at the end of 2022. Among the improvements underway - the construction of two new pumping stations to better move flood water out of neighborhood streets. Crews are also elevating Kimball Terrace, one of only two roads in or out of the neighborhood and one that floods even on a sunny day, nearly cutting this community off from the rest of the city.

"That's a quality-of-life issue. That's a public safety issue. If you can't get fire and emergency vehicles rapidly to respond to the neighborhood," Beaver stresses.

Crews have also built a flood berm and living shoreline along the riverfront. But the work also extends several blocks away from the river. Part of the projected success of this project stems from how involved community members have been it its planning.

Beaver says, "We had over 35 community meetings to say, 'What do you want to see in your neighborhood that we can accommodate through flood protection?'"

One of the requests from residents was building a resilience park comes in. The city is building a flood berm, a restored tidal creek and acres of recreation space for families to connect with each other and the adjoining Grandy Village neighborhood.

Image Courtesy: City of Norfolk

What's happening here could be a blueprint for other parts of Norfolk, Beaver believes.

"Ohio Creek is just one part; we know we're going to have to move around the city in the coming years to protect all of it."

After completing a study with the Army Corps of Engineers in 2019, the city is now in the first phase of a plan to extend the downtown flood wall. Areas like the Lafayette River and Pretty Lake are also on the list of communities that need attention in the coming years if the city is to survive the increased flooding threat.

Related: Sen. Warner: Infrastructure bill could bring major dollars to address Hampton Roads sea level rise

"We will be here because we're leaning forward on it with projects like these," Beaver says.

What's your neighborhood's flood risk? Click here to use a new flood mapping tool from the city of Norfolk to see a visualization of how vulnerable your home is to flood water.