These Norfolk neighborhoods have the money to adapt to sea-level rise, but something else is lacking

NORFOLK — Funding is usually the biggest obstacle for communities to adapt to rising seas. Fortunately, that’s one thing two of Norfolk’s most at-risk neighborhoods don’t have to worry about.

Unfortunately, community engagement might be.

In January 2016 the state was awarded $112 million through a federal program to improve the resiliency of those communities and surrounding infrastructure. The city has been taking comments from residents about what improvements to make to combat the waters that often flood the neighborhoods’ yards and seep into basements. 

“This project is so much more than figuring out what to do about flooding,” Christine Morris, the city’s chief resiliency officer, said in a video explaining the project. “As part of our resilience strategy, we want to improve your connection to the communities around you.”

Chesterfield Heights is home to more than 400 homes and buildings crafted between 1898 and 1950 on the Historic National Register. Grandy Village contains over 300 public housing units, according to the city’s website. Both are predominantly black neighborhoods.

“The Ohio Creek Watershed project will install a series of distributed green infrastructure projects such as rain barrels and rain gardens, and combine them with coastal shoreline development to address flooding due to storm surge and torrential rains,” according to a 2016 press release from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is distributing the funds.

Residents can comment in-person on the project at future public hearings, or fill out an online survey with their opinions. As of Friday afternoon, the online option had yielded just three responses.

City officials held three hearings on June 29 at the Grandy Village Learning Center. A stream of water flowed lazily down the side of Kimball Terrace and onto Ballentine Boulevard just a few blocks away as they began their final presentation of the day.

Living shorelines. Elevated walkways. Gardens that double as drainage ponds. A consultant with the city walked the attendees through 21st-century flood prevention tech in the packed room. Small children, who made up a quarter of the crowd, munched on bags of chips and tugged at sleeves.

“We’re right at the beginning. We haven’t decided anything yet. So, this is a really great time to get your input,” Morris said, almost yelling to be heard over the shuffling crowd. “This is a long process. We won’t actually be putting a shovel in the dirt probably until 2019.”

Following the presentation, residents were invited to write down ideas they want to see included in the plans. The kids dispersed, as did some of their parents.

While some of the notes left behind did relate to flood protection, many comments were primarily related to improving the quality of life in general. Others were simply complaints.

One of the chief concerns among residents as well as city officials is access to the rest of the community. The neighborhoods are nestled between the Elizabeth River to the south and I-264 to the north. The only two roads in or out, Ballentine and Kimball Terrace, are at risk of flooding during heavy rain and storm surges.

That may sound like a minor inconvenience but as Kyle Spencer, GIS team supervisor for the city, explained, if someone suffered a medical emergency like a heart attack, it would be impossible for an ambulance to reach them.

Additionally, several people complained about the long red light wait time at the intersection of Ballentine and Westminster Avenue as well as the poorly maintained pedestrian walkways.

The neighborhoods are situated in the Ohio Creek Watershed between the historic Ohio and Moseley Creeks, which were largely filled in as the city expanded. When it floods now, the water tends to pool in the areas where the creeks once flowed.

In order to be eligible for the HUD grant, the state had to be able to cite a recent natural disaster that caused significant damage. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, that disaster was Hurricane Irene, which caused $182 million in damages to the Commonwealth in 2011.

The tide gauge at Sewells Point has recorded a sea level increase rate of about 1.5 feet per century, twice the global rate. According to a paper published by ODU’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, that area can expect to see 2.5 feet of increase by 2100.

As seas rise, storm surges from hurricanes, which are also expected to increase in strength in the coming decades, become more severe and cause more damage.

An analysis by the Virginia Coastal Policy Center estimates that by 2040 a 100-year storm would rob the region’s economy of $1 billion in productivity. Coincidentally, it’s estimated that for the city of Norfolk alone to adapt, it would cost $1 billion, slightly less than the city’s entire annual budget.

And the money for such projects may prove harder to come by. President Donald J. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget would not fund the HUD program that is paying for the watershed project.

Contact Davis at sean@localvoicemedia.com

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