'Watching The Water:' Climate change continues to impact Norfolk

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

Photo Credit: Skip Stiles

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily of Mace & Crown or Old Dominion University. If you are interested in submitting an op-ed please email Jraym003@odu.edu

By: Alex Scruggs, ODU '18

Floodwater spilled onto Mayflower Avenue in Colonial Place, Norfolk, around 7 p.m. on July 10. Cars passed, leaving wet tire streaks as they drove on. People walked their dogs on the sidewalk, seemingly taking no notice of the stagnant water pooled up on the street. The sun was brightly shining as it made its final descent for the day. Few clouds could be seen. Not overflowing, Knitting Mill Creek, the adjacent body of water, lazily drifted north into the Lafayette River. Mayflower Avenue, and many streets around Norfolk have pools of standing water that flow up and out of the storm drains during high tide.

Norfolk residents frequently have to deal with nuisance flooding. It seems as if every time it rains, and even during many high tides, the roads have standing water. Standing on his front steps and gazing at the floodwater from storm drains, Mayflower Avenue resident Michael Langston said, “It’s not daily, but (this flooding) is fairly common.” Norfolk is often characterized by its proximity to the water, especially as it creeps farther inland.

Much of the flooding that the city experiences is directly or indirectly attributed to human-accelerated climate change – mostly due to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollutants – which results in higher global temperatures, or, global warming. Norfolk is in a particularly precarious position in terms of global warming. There’s sea-level rise, slowing of the gulf stream, increased precipitation and other compounding factors such as sinking land which put Norfolk on the map as one of the nation’s most susceptible regions to flooding. This means that residents may have to get used to flooding.

Langston infrequently finds himself dealing with more flooding than most Norfolk residents. He said that about one week out of the year, when a weather event such as a nor’easter is nearby, the water from Knitting Mill Creek flows above the bulkhead, across the street and into his front yard.

“You can see how it would be hard to live here during that week,” said Langston. “Especially when I have to go to work in a nice outfit - I can’t be wearing waders into the office.”

In times when flooding becomes unbearable, Langston and his wife, Lauren, go to stay at his parents’ house in Chesapeake. The temporary move doesn’t seem to bother Langston, though. He meets the challenge with a cool head. “It’s pretty easy,” Langston said. “I mean, a week living with my parents, it’s no big deal. It’s a week, it’s not that long… I have options. A lot of people don’t.”

But long-term problems can’t be solved with a mere stay at his parents’ house. One way that Langston mitigated flooding’s effects on his property is by installing a dehumidifier in the crawlspace under his house. He says this desaturates the wood after floodwater flows down there.

Even systems behind Langston’s house, farther from the creek, had to be adapted. Langston’s heating unit was rendered useless during a storm in February 2014. He said the storm flooded his street and even his backyard. Afterwards, Langston had an air-conditioning unit installed behind the house about six inches off the ground, but the city said it needed to be higher to protect it from floodwater. It is now about five feet off the ground. “The funny thing is, if it needs to be that high to protect itself, my house is wrecked,” Langston said, gesturing toward his house, which is not raised.

This solution, lifting the air-conditioning unit up, doesn’t always take place preemptively. Lori Baccanari, a resident of Larchmont whose house is on the Lafayette River waterfront, has had trouble with flooding as well. In November of 2009, a nor’easter flooded her front yard, filled her backyard and even got into the basement.

“We had a couple of AC units that were out here, you know, in the backyard. Insurance paid to replace those. We moved those up to the roof,” Baccanari said. That storm was particularly damaging; the Baccanari house had to file a flood-insurance claim of about $40,000.

Baccanari isn’t the only one having to make steep flood-insurance claims. Jennifer Priest, a resident of Meadowbrook who also resides near the Lafayette river, has lived in her house since 1999. During a phone interview, Priest said that she’s lost “about $211,000 and some change” between her family moving in and August 2011, which was the time of her most recent flood-insurance claim. Like Baccanari, these insurance claims originated from large storms (Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the nor’easter of November 2009 and Hurricane Irene in August 2011) that brought standing water to her property.

Priest maintains a positive outlook despite trying setbacks. “Accepting the fact that climate change is real and global warming is certainly an aggravated human occurrence, think of all the innovation opportunities there are to counteract and change behavior,” she said. “So really it should be looked at as a way to make some lemonade.”

Norfolk City Councilwoman Andrea McClellan expanded on the idea of optimistically looking at the problem, “Our goal is to create solutions to allow us to live with the water, and then take those solutions and create a new economy based on that, that we can then monetize and improve our economic standing,” she said during a phone interview.

The city of Norfolk is mindful that flooding is a threat to the region, McClellan said. She notes that the city’s Office of Resilience is dedicated to finding solutions to the city’s vulnerabilities, although the office’s home page does not mention climate change or sea-level rise.

Christine Morris, the chief resilience officer, declined a request to be interviewed and did not respond to a request for comment.

From a scientific perspective, Dr. Michael Allen, a climate scientist and assistant professor at Old Dominion University, highlights the systems already in place to help people prepare for flooding. He said that the tidal gauge at Sewell’s Point, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a good tool for residents worried about water levels. People can visit the tidal gauge’s webpage – which can be found by googling “Sewell’s Point tide gauge” – and keep track of the water level. By doing so, residents are able to find out when tides might be high, he said. “And we do this in our daily lives,” said Allen, “we look at the news tonight for the weather tomorrow to know what we’re going to wear; so it’s the same kind of information we’re using but this is a graphic standpoint.”

In addition to precipitation levels, other factors like wind speed, wind direction and air pressure levels may affect water height. Low-pressure systems rotate counterclockwise, meaning that if there’s a low-pressure system just to our southeast, the air and water would be forced into the bay. “If you have an east wind, you’re basically pushing water from the Atlantic into the bay,” said Allen. “So you would consequently get more water, or higher water, in the bay.” Plus, the water doesn’t just have to come from outside of the Chesapeake Bay. “If you have a north wind, the wind is pushing all the water, well not all of it, but it’s piling the water from Annapolis down south and that water might push down through and to the Elizabeth River and the creeks that intersect our region down here in the southern branch of the Bay.”

Dr. Tal Ezer, an oceanographer at ODU, working with his colleagues, connected the dots and found another reason as to why Norfolk’s streets are so frequently flooded. The Florida Current, a portion of the Gulf Stream which runs off Florida’s coast, can have an effect on Hampton Roads.

During an interview in March, Ezer said, “Sometimes without any storm in sight, we still have some minor flooding and wet streets. Usually you get warning when you get a big storm coming but sometimes there is actually a storm far away, near Florida, you find out it can have an effect thousands of miles away in our area.”

Storms near Florida can be significant for Hampton Roads because when a large storm, like a hurricane, passes over the Florida current, the current can slow. In a couple days, that slowed portion of the Gulf Stream flows off the coast of southeastern Virginia. Slower water movement means higher water levels.

“On the short term, we see over a period of a few days, we have a higher than normal water level and flooding that we can see an indication of it (the slowing of the current),” said Ezer.

The slowed current is directly relatable to a short period of increased sea level in Hampton Roads. Ezer made this discovery by monitoring the tide gauge at Sewell’s Point.

“Studies project that the observed increase in heavy precipitation events will continue in the future,” reads Chapter 7 of the recently released Climate Science Special Report. This confirms that because of climate change, the number of large storms, like the ones that disrupt the Florida Current, are on the rise.

It can be a daunting task. Residents of Norfolk, on the tip of the spear, having to think of climate change and how to mitigate its effects while commuting to work in flooded streets. The solution doesn’t have to start big, and it doesn’t have to happen all at once, Allen says. “How do we make affordable and cost-effective (renewable energy sources) from an individual standpoint and scale that from you and me here to a city and national scale, and from a geographic standpoint? That scale is a really important question,” said Allen, “Scaling up.”

That is to say, start with finding energy-efficient ways to live your day-to-day life; find ways to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses you put out. Allen says that these methods, over some time, being “scaled up” and put into place on a regional and national scale are an encouraging way to slow the increase of climate change’s effects. If a business community, Allen gives the hypothetical example of ODU, switches to using solar power as its energy source, becoming more efficient and reducing pollutants, that community’s success might convince a legislative body to discuss implementing solar power on a larger scale.

Cap and trade is another perspective solution. This is done by assigning a pollution cap on a per-capita basis, whether regionally, state-by-state or on an international scale. Emissions trading, which is simply a way of areas (cities, states, etc.) trading their unused emissions quota, could result in the reduction of carbon outputs, and bolster some economies.

Peter Singer, a moral philosopher and bioethics professor at Princeton, argues for cap and trade in his 2002 essay, “One Atmosphere,” “A country like the United States that is already producing more gases than its share will need its full quota and then some, but a country like Russia that is below its share will have excess quota that it can sell.” This allows developed countries to keep their pollution in check while not having grave effects on their economy, and developing countries to receive favorable compensation for their unused pollution quota.”

Having said that, it may be difficult to see one overarching solution being able to reduce our carbon output, as a species, enough to slow the effects of climate change. That is especially true for a city like Norfolk that viscerally experiences these effects on a day-to-day basis. Every-day decisions like the modes of transportation we use and what we consume all have an effect on our atmosphere. It is all part of the problem that is the continuance of climate change.

“These systems are really connected, which is why this issue is so complicated,” said Allen. “You can’t talk about climate change without talking about transportation; without talking about food; without talking about the economy; without talking about human health. The Lancet, the medical journal, one of the world’s premium medical journals, calls climate change a ‘medical emergency’… However we can cut greenhouse gas emissions – just do it. So food, transportation, and then really the best way to make change: advocate for change.”

Councilwoman McClellan’s views reflected that thought. “We also need citizens to help us… as a city government, to lobby at the state and federal level for more funds so that we can accomplish what needs to be done,” said McClellan. She stresses that the funds to mitigate climate change and rising water-levels are too great for the city, they need to come from a higher legislative body.

“It’s a process, and it’s going to take some time,” she said. “We don’t have the benefit of a lot of time, quite honestly, but you can do what you can do.”

It will take time, that’s why talking about it so important. Norfolk’s streets are already flooding, the city’s water levels are already rising, the region’s land is already sinking. In the current situation, it is natural to question whether living on the water is worth the issues surrounding flooding.

Michael Langston, the resident of Mayflower Avenue, seems to think that it is. “It’s beautiful out there,” he said, gesturing toward the waterfront. A welcome summer breeze dances over the leaves of nearby trees and across the banks of Knitting Mill Creek. Restaurant patrons sit on a nearby patio upriver, enjoying a meal as the sun lowers in the sky and the summer heat fades away, if only slightly. Appreciating the view, Langston said, “To lose that would be awful.” Because of any number of reasons, floodwater will enter Mayflower Avenue across from his house and lap his front yard. Still, he fondly enjoys the scenery while living there is feasible.

A long, bright-blue paddleboard rests in Langston’s backyard right next to the raised AC unit. The board gets some of its best uses in times of particularly bad flooding. Langston said, “That’s one of the reasons we got it. You have a day off during a flood, you get to go around the neighborhood.”