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Climate Change Reality Check Comes to Hampton Roads

Climate Change Reality Check Comes to Hampton Roads

April 14, 2015 | By Jugal Patel, Digital Editor

War, disease, cycles of economic depression and recession. Norfolk has seen it all. But what’s up ahead will take the whole village– from business owners, to public officials and planners, engineers and architects, scientists and civic leaders, even students.

The Big Blue Room of ODU's Ted Constant Convocation Center is packed with regional leaders within the civic, business, and government communities. Attendees of the Resilient Region Reality Check listen as ODU President John Broderick welcomes them to the conference. Credit: Dan Bell | Urban Land Institute

The Big Blue Room of ODU’s Ted Constant Convocation Center is packed with regional leaders within the civic, business, and government communities. Attendees of the Resilient Region Reality Check listen as ODU President John Broderick welcomes them to the conference. Credit: Dan Bell | Urban Land Institute

Last month, Hampton Roads leaders came together to identify the priorities, efforts, and resources needed to deal with the region’s sea level rise and flooding related issues– perhaps the historic area’s greatest challenge. The conversation held at Old Dominion University’s Ted Constant Center was the kick-off to an Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check series of annual events.

“The goal of the ULI’s Reality Check events is to allow diverse groups to have a say in visioning and planning a region’s future,” said Michelle Covi, Virginia Sea Grant extension at ODU and organizer of the event. “This is the first time this diversity of opinions and perspectives were shared in one room.”

According to Chris Bonney, Chairman of the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement, the event signified a meaningful step to address the region’s problems. Bonney mentioned that he and most other participants expect, “the region’s local elected leaders will learn to work better together, rather than separately, to address these challenges.”

Participants from Table 11 of the Urban Land Institute Event discuss Hampton Roads climate change and sea level rise problems. Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun

Participants from Table 11 of the Urban Land Institute Event discuss Southeast Virginia’s climate change and sea level rise problems. Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun

Some participants recalled problems they experienced with getting to work, damage to property, declining real estate values, and increasing insurance costs—among a host of other personal impacts.

As for the top concerns, participants cited transportation and the Hampton Roads economy when considering sea level rise.

Costs associated with three feet of rising seas are estimated between $12 billion and $87 billion, according to a study by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. Three feet of sea level rise would also permanently or regularly flood up to 877 miles of roads around Hampton Roads.

Another point of agreement: the region will need to secure funding to implement adaptation projects, such as raising streets and homes, building seawalls, dikes, levees, restoring coastal wetlands, among others.

Concerns were also expressed over impacts on the military—which makes up 42% of the Hampton Roads economy according to ODU’s most recent State of the Region report. Christopher Born, a representative from Joint Base Langley-Eustis reflected on past damage the base had experienced due to storms. Since 2003, three hurricanes and a nor’easter alone caused over $188 million in damage.

Currently, Hampton Roads is comprised of 17 localities essentially, “running their own ship,” said another participant. Consolidating the region’s future planning in preparing for sea level rise and increasing public awareness of the issues are critical for adaption. 

A commonly agreed upon, concrete goal is a transition to an environment-centered planning of land use—where the region’s geographical topography and ecology are taken into account for development plans. City officials lauded that such a transition would allow developed areas to be focused on higher ground where they are away from floodwater. Building codes can also be updated, and if need be, leaders can pursue funding for engineering and architecture designs of living with water.

Other solutions mentioned were to reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions, while creating incentives for the region’s people to do their part.

Some of the initiatives mentioned that people can take are to clean their storm drains, install rain barrels and rain gardens to retain water, and to become more active in the process of adaption as a whole.

Where Hampton Roads leaders believe priorities ought to lie in responding to climate change and sea level rise.

Where Hampton Roads leaders believe priorities ought to lie in responding to climate change and sea level rise.

At the end of the Reality Check event, participants voted on priority areas to deal with the region’s worsening flooding problems. Each member was given five votes to distribute along an assortment of focus areas.

Following the event, a team of social scientists at ODU will analyze the results of the discussions and the voting exercise. Covi says the findings “can be used by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, the municipalities, and the Intergovernmental Pilot Project to inform their work to build regional resilience.”

The Hampton Roads Intergovernmental Pilot Project is an initiative tasked by the White House and the Pentagon to establish a whole of government and whole of community approach to resilience planning and sea level rise preparation, The Pilot Project will conclude in June of 2016 with the creation of an intergovernmental planning team.

“We’re trying to tie together the 18 federal agencies in the region, the state government, 16 local jurisdictions, and the planning district commission in the Hampton Roads region—which includes the 7 major cities. And then our private sector—it’s huge,” said Ray Toll, member of the Pilot Project’s steering committee and Director of Coastal Resilience Research at ODU. “It’s unprecedented at the level we’re tackling it.”

Ray Toll-- Director of Coastal Resilience Research at ODU, Member of the Intergovernmental Pilot Project, and of Governor McAuliffe's Climate Change Commission-- speaks with a participant during the Reality Check event on March 17. Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun

Ray Toll– Director of Coastal Resilience Research at ODU, Member of the Intergovernmental Pilot Project, and of Governor McAuliffe’s Climate Change Commission– speaks with a participant during the Reality Check event on March 17. Credit: Rich-Joseph Facun

When asked about some of the challenges the Pilot Project has faced, Toll responded by citing the novelty of adapting to climate change. “This is a slow process even though we know that with climate change, the storms are going to get more vigorous and more frequent. What we’re worried about is our children’s generation, and our grandchildren’s generation. That takes some strategic planning—we don’t have an intergovernmental planning process today. We have individuals planning, but not across the board.”

As the region sinks while sea levels rise, the conversation on how to prepare is expected to continue. 

The annually recurring Resilient Region Reality Check event was hosted through collaboration between the Urban Land Institute and ODU’s Mitigation and Adaptation Research Institute. Representatives from civic leagues, businesses, and nonprofits participated in the event; they were also joined by government officials from local, state, and federal levels.​


Jugal Patel is the Coastal Adaptation & Resilience Correspondent for the Virginia Sea Grant. This story is part of the Mace & Crown’s Rising Seas, Sinking Cities series. Views expressed within RiSSC stories do not necessarily reflect those of any governmental or grant-making organization.

 Follow @NorfolkClimate on Twitter for Updates on this story