Lawmakers address local threat from rising sea level

July 1, 2014
In The News

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Several members of Congress representing Virginia and Hampton Roads hosted a regional conference on Monday about the local threat from sea level rise, particularly in Norfolk.

The conference was held at the Ted Constant Center at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Rep. Rob Wittman (VA-01), Rep. Scott Rigell (VA-02) and Rep. Bobby Scott (VA-03) organized the event, alongside mayors Paul Fraim of Norfolk, Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach, and Kenny Wright of Portsmouth.

Sen. Kaine said Hampton Roads is the second most vulnerable community in the U.S. to sea level rise, after New Orleans. He said he drove along Surrey Crescent in Norfolk before the conference, where many families have raised their homes and outdoor A/C units, due to flooding.

Other ways sea level rise is currently having visible impacts on the area were mentioned. And Rep. Scott said it’s only getting worse. In the next 30 years, he said, the sea level could rise by a foot.

“A foot is coming, and we need to make sure we mitigate it,” he said. “We are already having housing crises that are affected. We’ve got threats to our military assets, to economic development, and we need to work cooperatively together.”

The conference gathered two panels of policy experts and regional stakeholders who focused on the urgency of meeting the specific challenges Hampton Roads faces due to both sea level rise and land subsidence. One topic mentioned many times was rising sea level’s impact on the military community.

“As home to some of the largest military installations in the world, we must remain prepared and vigilant to deal with the risks associated with living on a coast,” Rigell said. “I am convinced that with cooperation with our state, local, private sector and military partners, we can ensure that Hampton Roads remains the best place to open or grow a command or business. I appreciate the bipartisan attention this matter is receiving and was glad to hear from the experts present at this morning’s discussion.”

“You heard about Hampton Boulevard — if it floods and cuts off the flow of people going to Norfolk Naval Station to go to work, that’s a significant issue,” Wittman said.

Sen. Kaine said he worries about the potential impact of flooding on future base realignments, if leaders do not act soon.

“The prediction is that every day by 2040, main road access will be blocked two to three hours a day, just because of normal tide swing. Forget about storm events; that will make it even worse,” Kaine said. “It’s a national security risk, in many ways, but just the most direct is when you have your major center of naval power, then sure, it affects your national security, and it affects the regional economy, because maybe the Navy will decide it’s threatened by these weather events. It poses such a risk to national security, we have to reposition naval assets elsewhere. We don’t want that to happen.”

Mayor Paul Fraim said several areas of the city are at risk, but he remained optimistic about addressing the problem. The city is studying up to seven projects and will be asking the federal government for help, he said.

“Everywhere from the flooding that occurs routinely now across the city, even on lunar high tides. That would include Ocean View, especially down by Pretty Lake, over in the Ghent area, in downtown,” Fraim said.

It was also mentioned that ODU has been working on a two-year pilot project that would include planning for flooding scenarios and the costs associated with sea level rise.

Rep. Scott Rigell said he was encouraged by the turnout at the event: “By the attendance today, I’m confident that the region is beginning to understand this is a real issue. There needs to be improved coordination among the federal, state, and local entities that are trying to advance some sound solutions to it.”

Lawmakers and local officials say the forum was just the start of coordinating efforts to combat the growing problem. But the members of Virginia’s Congressional delegation said they left the conference knowing better how to advocate for Hampton Roads’ needs on a federal level.

“This conference provided good insight as to what my colleagues in Congress and I can do to help the region deal with its increasing effects,” Scott said. “This is just the beginning of this conversation and these efforts, and I look forward to working with those in Hampton Roads and across the Commonwealth to ensure that our communities are able to face this challenge.”