Political Pulse in Norfolk: Rising seas and a difficult history


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Norfolk, like all of the cities of Hampton Roads, is soaked in history that predates our founding. But this election, like all others, is about our next chapter.

Virginia’s third-largest city is a mix of progressive politics and military tradition. Some political issues of focus are unique to the city, while others reflect national discussions.

The world’s largest naval base in Norfolk brought now-retired Adm. Jake Tobin to Norfolk in the 1960s.

“I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else,” Tobin said, smiling and leaning back in his chair overlooking the Elizabeth River in city’s storied Freemason neighborhood. Yet, Tobin’s top choice is no different than those in most American cities, in facing up to its past and charting a future in these partisan times.

“History never goes away, and there’s so much history here,” he said.

How history has been told over centuries is sparking a new fight that sometimes troubles Tobin. He refers to the recent protests at the old Confederate monument that was recently ordered removed from Main Street by the city, but not before its base was vandalized with graffiti. The graffiti was an action that only highlighted the racial divide plaguing communities across the nation.

“We need to come together in peace with each other to move ahead together for what we need to be in the future. We, being our nation.”

Tobin says the conversation should not end on the streets, but begin at the ballot box.

“It’s not ‘I’m gonna decide.’ It’s ‘we’re gonna decide — together,'” he said. “We’ve got some difficult problems to deal with and they won’t be easy to deal with.”

Rising water, sinking land

One major problem is the waters that paint Norfolk’s image as the Mermaid City, which are threatening its very existence. Susan Layton, who is chief of planning for the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Norfolk has had both a sinking and rising problem for decades, and the bill is coming due.

“We’re dealing with both the sea levels rising as well as the land subsiding. So that relative sea level rise has been increasing over time,” she said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is recommending $1.4 billion in federal money to construct sea walls and storm surge barriers, and that’s just the beginning.

“When we look at sea level rise and coastal storms, we’re talking more of a 25-year, a 50-year, even a 100-year timeline. So it is more difficult, I think, to conceive making those investments in the long term. But the level of damage that will occur if we don’t make those investments [is] phenomenal,” she said.

Civic engagement

On the other side of town, a man known in Ocean View as Coach Dwight McDowell is investing time in the next generation.

“I’m a coach, so everything is about teamwork to me. You don’t ever give up on anybody,” he said.

He has spent 26 years mentoring at-risk youth to keep them out of trouble.

“I believe that overall we’re trying to work together to not to be a good community but a great community, and that starts with unity, coming together and working through differences.”

McDowell says people must work for results together. John Smith is one of McDowell’s success stories, though it hasn’t always been that way. The 35-year-old father talks about his passion.

“I learned how to cut hair before I actually got incarcerated,” he said.

Smith served eight years behind bars for an armed robbery in Seattle. Shortly after he served his sentence, Smith applied for a fast food job and was turned down. But he didn’t stop pursuing his dream after he returned to Hampton Roads.

“From the very next day, I walked into a barbershop and started cutting hair. From that moment I took it serious, and 10 years later, I got two shops.”

Smith was able to hire an attorney to have his voting rights restored, and says it’s made him appreciate the freedom many Americans have to choose our leaders in Washington “and within your local level.

“It’s very important because those are the ones that have that direct effect on you,” he said.

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