As a lifelong resident of Norfolk, I have witnessed its rebirth as a cultural and economic hub that has driven this region’s economy throughout the Great Recession.
However, the strides we have made are threatened by the very real threat of climate change. I grew up in the Ghent section of Norfolk, which is subject to chronic flash flooding and non-navigable roadways even during heavy downpours. Since my childhood, the issues have gotten continually worse. With each year, social media depicts photos and videos of the water creeping ever-higher inland. One can only imagine how high the water will go if we do not take immediate action.
But rising seas do not just affect one portion of our city. Large swaths of communities, from Larchmont to Ingleside to Tidewater Park, must deal with our rising seas. Hampton Roads is second only to New Orleans in the United States in terms of vulnerability to sea level rise. While we also acknowledge that Norfolk is sinking, my generation has no choice but to face the threat of climate change head on. Our viability as a coastal community hinges on our ability to take steps to mitigate against rising sea levels.
Our generation must be bold and innovative in our solutions. I am encouraged by our mayor and city council’s commitment to finding solutions to deal with recurrent flooding. Storm surge barriers and floodwalls are two options that are on the table and could alleviate our issues. Moreover, the city is considering changing certain public areas into wetlands to collect stormwater runoff. Any other creative solutions to address sea level rise must also be on the table – our region cannot afford to kick this can down the road any longer.
Sea level rise affects all aspects of our lives. In April, the New York Times published an article detailing the increased costs (mainly flood insurance) associated with home ownership in Norfolk. Families will shy away from relocating to Norfolk because of prohibitive costs, and businesses will do the same without the proper infrastructure in place to prevent from catastrophic loss.
A 2016 report by RTI International examined the potential effect on Hampton Roads’ economy in the event of a 100-year storm (one with a 1-in-100 chance of happening here in any given year). The study compared the scenarios of no sea level rise, and increases of a half-meter and three-quarters of a meter. Such a storm would potentially cost the average household $944, $1,760 or $3,366 in annual income, depending upon whether and by how much sea levels rose. The report also estimated that would equate to a negative impact on our annual gross regional product to the tune of $611 million, $1.1 billion or $2.2 billion. These numbers are truly staggering to contemplate and represent only an estimate – the figures could be exponentially higher.
Infrastructure to combat sea level rise costs money. Federal money is available to move these projects forward, but it also takes investment from the state. This issue takes acknowledgment and commitment from Democrats and Republicans and citizens of all coastal cities. Hampton Roads has too many coastal assets that depend on our waterways: the Port of Virginia, Norfolk Naval Station, our beaches, and our homes. My generation must provide the proper leadership at all levels of government to ensure that a key driver of the Commonwealth’s economy remains a viable community for our children, their children, and beyond.