Norfolk is ranked by the EPA as one of the most at-risk cities when it comes to flooding, second only to New Orleans.
This year New Orleans was hit by a storm with as much as eight to 10 inches of rain that fell in just a few hours; the city’s 24 pumping stations couldn’t keep up. We’ve seen similar events recently in Norfolk, and the familiar resurgence of what many call Lake Olney, an area near the intersection of Olney Road and Boush Street that frequently floods for blocks in all directions.
We shouldn’t have to spend hours navigating the few unsubmerged roadways on a rainy day like a mouse in a maze just to make it to work or home safely. Every flooding event in Norfolk comes with the obligatory news coverage showing vehicles abandoned and ruined. Our neighbors’ property is being lost and lives are being put at risk.
Many residents look to those in positions of authority or leadership for answers in these times of crisis. The answers they get usually sound too much like political double-speak. ‘We hear you, and want you to know we are looking into solutions’, or the ubiquitous refrain ‘we will commission a study’. When people don’t get satisfaction from leadership, it quickly becomes fuel for water cooler talk. “You know what is causing this, right?” and “Enough with the studies; why can’t we find a solution?”
Growing up in rural Wisconsin in the ‘70s, and as a member of 4-H, we made sure to tend carefully the land we managed, rotating crops and capturing runoff for future irrigation. The way the lost shade from newly removed trees impacted vegetation showed me at an early age human activity can impact an ecosystem. Multiply that times six billion people, and the myriad ecosystems being impacted, and the scale of our species impact on the climate becomes clear.
The ‘reverse course’ side of this issue understands that human activity has contributed to our changing climate. Yet that position must acquiesce that it has been a centuries-long process whose effects surely won’t change overnight. Even those on the side of ‘natural periodic climate cycles’, if true, must admit those cycles and their effects don’t change overnight. Both sides are really in the same boat.
To effectively address this issue as it relates to us in the here and now, we can’t simply depend on slowing the rate of increase in our carbon emissions or even reversing them. Even the new discussion around carbon farming and sequestration in the soil will require time to be effective. Current studies show we have yet to even realize the full effects of carbon that has already been emitted. The reality is that flooding is occurring in Norfolk, more severely and more frequently, and we cannot bet our future on the chance that we can find a way to reverse it. We need to focus on adapting to what science shows are the worst case scenarios if we are to successfully protect our property, our quality of life and our future. The funding to make these adaptations is limited so we must ensure we spend those dollars wisely.
As a city, our leadership seems to have a penchant for the flashy, glitzy, headline-grabbing projects, like new hotels and “us too” mass transit options, leaving the mundane for another day. Our city has developed a costly light rail line, both in terms of development and maintenance, with little ridership to warrant the expenditure. Even revisiting this project to explore expansion to service areas that would support increased ridership (and the revenue to justify the whole thing), come with added expenses.
The federal government, holding the purse strings on federal transportation dollars many consider necessary to accomplish the feat, required Norfolk to spend more public money to study a western route, despite the city’s preference, as stated in a recent council meeting, to build on the eastern side of the city. That is the side with higher ground less prone to flooding, and also the side with the airport, considered by many a no-brainer for any consideration of expanded light rail service.
Bottom line: public money is being, and will continue to be spent on our transportation needs. Even more will be spent as flooding mitigation continues to grab its own headlines. We need to be prepared so this funding is spent in the most responsible way, and avoid squandering it. It is time for some good old-fashioned common sense when it comes to addressing flooding in Norfolk. Even little kids playing in the mud understand the basic concepts needed to avoid and redirect water.
Cities across Virginia, including Norfolk and Virginia Beach, are currently in a mad dash to digitally map out their stormwater infrastructure using geographic information systems to make possible the kind of complex analyses needed to solve our future flooding problems. This information is combined and augmented by datasets maintained by the state and federal government and passed along to consultants who are paid millions of dollars to design and evaluate proposed projects. Sometimes this work can be repetitive while in other situations it can prove unnecessary as projects are abandoned or scrapped while still on the drawing board. Our current way of thinking about solutions is outdated and ineffective. It’s time to change our calculus for dealing with sea level rise and develop the ability to plan and design mitigation and adaptation projects in house without the need for expensive outside consultants.
Some might wonder why the government should be taking the lead on these efforts instead of the private sector. The answer is simple: it’s the data that drives the process and the government owns both the data and the means by which it is collected. If elected to represent Norfolk in the House of Delegates, I will propose legislation instructing the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency to coordinate with the Virginia Modeling and Simulation Center, VDOT, and local governments across the state to develop a unified framework and platform for developing and scoring all projects related to flood mitigation and stormwater management.
Once completed, this platform will allow local governments to save millions in consulting fees to plan and evaluate what will likely amount to the largest public works projects of this generation. It makes little sense for localities to reinvent the wheel over and over again each time a new project is proposed or problem identified. What Norfolk does to address flooding will have an impact on Virginia Beach and vice versa. My plan will allow for a regional and even statewide view of the effects these projects will have on neighborhoods, watersheds, and ecosystems that would be impossible to achieve with our current siloed approach. Effectively implementing and further marketing this product could even produce a net profit for the commonwealth, much as the Dutch do in exporting their expertise in dealing with these problems.
It is high time we elect leaders that don’t just state the obvious. We all know that these issues must be addressed. If you elect me this November, I bring these ideas to the table and will do everything in my power to ensure they are implemented in the most effective and efficient ways possible.
Terry Hurst is the Libertarian Nominee for the 89th District of the House of Delegates. For more on his and his campaign, click here.