Living with the Flood

Transatlantic Media Fellowship

Flooded streets, drifting cars: That’s normalcy for the citizens of Norfolk. The city wants to better protect its residents. But they don't always cooperate.

Teaser Image Caption
Videographer Staff Sgt. Jason Smith walks toward the 1st Fighter Wing headquarters building during Hurricane Isabel Sept. 18, 2003. Isabel left 32 fatalities and $1.9 billion in damages throughout Virginia

This article was first published in German by ZEIT ONLINE on November 13th, 2017 as part of our Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. It was translated from its original by Kerstin Trimble.

The residents of Norfolk, Virginia, know a thing or two about puddles – abysmal puddles. Water level rulers on the roadside indicate their depth; if you miss the warning and drive through such a puddle anyway, you and your car may end up going for a swim. And if you park your car in the wrong spot, you may lose it to the floods.

It doesn’t even take a storm or heavy rainfall - just the normal tide is enough to put Norfolk under water. The locals call it ‘sunny day flooding’ or ‘nuisance flooding,’ as if the water really were nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Fifty years ago, Norfolk had to contend with tidal ‘nuisance flooding’ on less than two days each year. Today, the number of flood days has almost quadrupled. In addition, normal rainfall now floods the city once a month. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that by 2045, Norfolk's roads could be flooded on about 180 days a year.

Climate change makes the world's sea level rise year after year, and it does not spare the US coast. But here in Virginia, where the Chesapeake Bay opens into the Atlantic, the land sinks even faster than elsewhere. Surrounded by water, Norfolk residents are feeling the consequences acutely. The city administration is fighting the floods and even wants to be a role model for other threatened communities. But can it succeed? To what extent can a city like Norfolk even be protected from the floods?

When the water comes rushing into the house, it’s as if someone hung hoses from every wall and opened the tap, says Erik DeSean Barrett. "The water is coming in with a lot of pressure.” There’s nothing you can do about it, he says. His basement has already been flooded twice in the past few years. "The first time it happened, it blew me away." Many families in his neighborhood use their basement as a living space. They are particularly hard hit by flooding.

Meanwhile, many of Norfolk's citizens have subscribed to flood warnings from Wetlands Watch, a small organization that sends out email alerts when the water is coming. It helps people pick alternative routes to work and find safe parking spots. When a particularly bad flood is expected, Wetlands Watch volunteers go out on the streets and collect flood data for an app to generate better forecasts.

Barrett and his grandmother live in a more than 100-year-old house in the Chesterfield Heights neighborhood, just a few hundred yards from the Elizabeth River. Many houses in the neighborhood are about the same age, he says. "Modern houses are built with better flood protection. Our basements just fill up.” What is worse, the Elizabeth River is slowly but surely getting closer. One look at the river bank easily confirms this: the banks are eroding and trees are falling into the river. "We are just now realizing how big the problem is," says Barrett. "Everybody's in shock."

The water is coming back

Norfolk's problem is its location on the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States and where half a dozen rivers converge. When the wind blows inland, the water sometimes gets logged in the bay. At low tide, the water cannot drain, and the water level rises even higher during the next tide.

The Chesapeake Bay region is an archetypal symbol of America’s very identity. Historic Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, is located on an island in the James River. Nearby Langley is home to a NASA research center, and a little further north,  NASA operates a flight facility. The Navy operates the world's largest military base in Norfolk, with dozens of warships, aircraft carriers, and submarines. Right next door is an important trading port. About 1.6 million people live in this region. When the sea rises, it hits them all.

The water reigns supreme over Norfolk. Rivers and canals crisscross the entire city. There used to be more until the tidal creeks were filled in the 19th century to build even more houses. Old maps show where these tidal creeks used to run. But the soil used to fill the creeks began to settle. The water is coming back, also now reaching Chesterfield Heights and neighboring Grandy Village. The Elizabeth River is rising; groundwater is pushing up from below, precipitation is increasing, and the storms that drive water onto the land are getting ever more severe.

Planning for the rising sea

Locals say that the floods are just beginning here in Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village, whereas other parts of Norfolk are flooded all the time.

Christine Morris is the head of Norfolk’s Chief Resilience Office – in practice, she leads the resistance against the wet foe. Norfolk was one of the first communities in the United States to mount large-scale preparations for rising sea levels. Morris wants to show the world how a coastal town like Norfolk can reduce the risk of flooding. Norfolk is already cooperating with Rotterdam, Singapore, and Miami and is also part of a worldwide network. "We're all dealing with the same problems," Morris says. In the end, it's also about money: Waterfront properties are losing value. The price of flood insurance is rising. Not everyone can afford to raise their house on stilts. The entire local economy will be paralyzed if trucks are unable to reach the port on time.

The city cannot be fully protected

Morris meets us in an unadorned office on Union Street. She spreads large maps of the city on a conference table. More plans with color-coded neighborhoods are hung up on the wall. Green means low, yellow means high flood risk. Any new constructions in these areas must be raised. Red marks the economically critical areas that rely on water access and, at the same time, are threatened by rising water. Chesterfield Heights is in red. Those who are lucky live in slightly elevated purple areas - in a "neighborhood of the future." The plan is to have more people move to purple.

How will Morris protect the city from the water? "I never say that I can protect the city," she replies. "But, we can reduce the risk of flooding and be better prepared for the floods, which are still inevitable." In the long term, the majority of Norfolk’s population is supposed to live further inland - not as close to the water.

The city's former mayor Paul Fraim is more straightforward. As early as 2012, he warned in The Atlantic of the possibility that parts of the city could not be saved and had to be abandoned. Morris, however, insists that Norfolk must remain a seaside city. "We can't lose our connection with the water. We have the Navy here, the shipyards, the harbor - really, the only reason we’re here is the water."

Climate change? No comment

The Navy is also in Norfolk because of the water. It is one of the city's major employers: 46,000 soldiers and 21,000 civilians work on base, which is only two meters above sea level and acutely threatened by rising waters. Even now, floods disrupt navy operations more and more frequently. Many employees can't get to work when streets are flooded, leaving the world's largest naval base running on emergency personnel only.

Nobody here wants to talk about the causes of rising water levels: climate change. It is too sensitive a topic at a time when the administration in Washington is denying the phenomenon. But Captain Dean VanderLey is willing to tell us how they plan to prepare for rising water. "We’re not planning any big projects," he says. "But we do account for the rising sea level in all our decisions." When the Navy builds new dormitories, they put them on raised platforms. Computer servers and generators are also raised as much as possible and equipped with drainpipes with return valves so the water cannot flow back under any circumstances.

Move away? That would rob people of their history.

The Captain is standing on the quay, pointing to the other side where a ship is being loaded. "Do you see the quay?" VanderLey asks. "It’s got two levels." The dual levels mean that ships can be processed faster - and all the important supply lines are located on the lower floor. "This way, they are protected from the waves even during a storm." The storms are getting fiercer, says VanderLey. Such quays are a good example of Norfolk's new, resilient structure. The World Resources Institute, however, estimates that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fully protect the Norfolk naval site from rising water levels. Experts anticipate that it would take over a billion dollars to protect the entire city. Nobody knows where this money is supposed to come from.

Higher dams and drainage areas

The city has tapped one source of funding. The Rockefeller Foundation is supporting the reconstruction of Grandy Village and Chesterfield Heights to the tune of 112 million dollars. It is intended to be a pilot project: well planned, well implemented. The city plans to raise the banks of the Elizabeth River in particularly vulnerable areas by building green embankments and flood walls in the neighborhoods. They are going to raise one very low-lying road, create green areas and wetlands, and repair sewer pipes to ensure better drainage during storms and heavy rainfalls.

The citizens resist

Even though the project makes perfect sense, people are already up in arms against it. Some citizens don't want to look at a wall or even a green dam. They fear for their unobstructed view of the water, despite reassurances from city administration that they will still have a water view. "People hate the idea," says Erik Barrett. "Would you rather look at the river? Or at a wall like you're in prison?"

Due to their construction, it is almost impossible to elevate old houses on stilts. It would be too expensive, anyway, says Barrett. But moving away is not an option, either. Barrett's house has been the family home for four generations. "You would be robbing people of their history if you forced them to give it up." And so some families will probably rather learn to live with flooded basements.


Editors note: This research trip to Virginia was made possible by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America. Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.