Investigation: Are we ready for the rise in flood waters from climate change?


HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — Is Hampton Roads ready for a rise in flood waters?

“This is definitely a critical issue for Hampton Roads,” said Emily Steinhilber, Ph.D. She’s a research professor at Old Dominion University studying the effects of flooding from economic, health and cultural perspectives.

“Flooding really has an extreme effect on our everyday lives,” said Virginia Wasserberg, a Virginia Beach resident, homeschooling mother of two and community activist.

They are just two of the many people in Hampton Roads who take climate change, sea level rise and extreme weather very seriously.

Flooding was widespread during Hurricane Matthew, but Steinhilber says we were lucky when Hurricane Florence jogged to the south at the last minute.

“If this had been the big one for this region, we could have been looking at about $40 billion in direct and indirect economic consequences for the region, and that’s excluding impacts to federal facilities,” Steinhilber said.

“Ten years ago, I think we were a little hesitant to be talking about some of these issues,” said Ben McFarlane, a senior planner for the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC).

McFarlane has had to change the way he coordinates local governments and organizations.

“We used to focus solely on the tidal flooding issue,” McFarlane said. “I think we now have an appreciation of the potential threat of compound events, that combine heavy levels of rainfall with tidal issues like a high tide or storm surge event.”

Virginia Beach city engineer Mike Mundy just returned from a region-wide conference where different areas share best practices when it comes to flooding. The city works with researchers at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and other municipalities to utilize forecasting data and technology to figure out where to put the stormwater.

“We can’t throw all of it downstream,” Mundy said, “because then we’re just flooding somebody downstream.”

10 On Your Side met Mundy near the Ashville Park subdivision, where the city has installed a weir gate. It can be manipulated before storms arrive to mitigate flooding by moving stored water where there will be more capacity.

A little more than 10 miles away lives Bob Jennings, 72, who has spent last 36 years in Windsor Woods.

“I’ve never seen this in my entire life flood like this before,” Jennings said about the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. He keeps an eye on gauges of a pond next to Rosemont Road, adjacent to St. Francis Episcopal Church.

Jennings says political power can rise and fall when it comes to climate change. “We’re getting out the vote for that. There’s a lot of conversations on social media exactly about (flooding), and they’re wanting their council members and folks to do something.”

Councilwoman Barbara Henley is listening. She brings two perspectives to the climate change discussion — as a city lawmaker who can effect change, and as a farmer whose family has raised berries and grain crops in Pungo for about 80 years.

“Farming has never been predictable. It’s always been a gamble. But it was more predictable (in the past).”

Henley says now her area doesn’t even need heavy rainfall to flood.

“When we get a strong south wind, it blows the water up here from the Albemarle Sound, and gets all the way up here into the bays and the rivers and if it keeps blowing, it overflows.”

Steinhilber says the high waters are putting more residents at-risk.

“Whether it’s medically fragile or lower income areas, those communities stand to be the most impacted.”

Wasserberg works with Jennings on Stop the Flooding Now, a grassroots effort to hold public officials accountable. She says flooding affects everyone.

“Children can’t get to school, moms and dads can’t get to work, retirees can’t do what it is that they love and want to do.”

McFarlane says large-scale projects, such as storm surge barriers, raising homes or actually relocating some homes in some cases, will require federal dollars.

As the flood levels get taller, the time horizon gets shorter.

“There is time to act,” McFarlane said. “But we need to have those conversations now. The sooner we start to plan the better off we’re going to be.”

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