Bay Journal

Sea level along Chesapeake rising faster than efforts to mitigate it

Coastal neighborhoods and cities are experiencing record flooding and destruction

  • By Rona Kobell on January 06, 2012
The Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, which sits next to the Market House at the head of the City Dock in Annapolis, in inundated after a late September storm in 2010.  (Dave Harp ) Norfolk, above, and many other cities and neighborhoods in the Hampton Roads area are increasingingly experiencing record flooding and destruction.  (Strickland and Jones) James Strickland demonstrates the flood-control system he installed to protect his accounting firm, Strickland and Jones. The building, is in Norfolk's Hague neighborhood, several blocks from the water. The system was put in place after water from a 2009 Nor'easter caused major flooding.  (Dave Harp) James Strickland demonstrates the flood-control system he installed to protect his accounting firm, Strickland and Jones. The building, is in Norfolk's Hague neighborhood, several blocks from the water. The system was put in place after water from a 2009 Nor'easter caused major flooding.  (Dave Harp) The houses in a Norfolk neighborhood, like the one on the left, are being raised to guard against the rising seas. New homes, like the one on the right, are being designed to resist flooding.  (Dave Harp)

Imagine living in a neighborhood where people check the tide gauges to figure out where they should park their cars. A place where front yards sprout wetland plants and smell like marsh grass, where city leaders debate spending millions of dollars to raise yet another street, and where prospective homeowners consult computerized flood maps to determine if it's safe to buy a house.

It may sound like science fiction, but it's the brutal reality in Norfolk and many neighborhoods in the half-dozen other cities that make up the Hampton Roads area. The ground in these areas near where the Chesapeake meets the ocean is slowly subsiding. That, coupled with sea-level rise, is bringing record flooding and destruction to these coastal neighborhoods. The flooding is happening faster than many ever imagined, and every solution to fix it is expensive. Plus, the problem is going to get worse over the next several decades, as it becomes clear that none of today's fixes will be permanent.

"As time goes on, and communities flood, many residents are going to turn to their governments and say, 'do something, fix it,'" said John Boon, a longtime marine researcher who recently retired from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. "A lot of things have been proposed in the realm of planning, and they are not very popular."

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program Science and Technical Advisory Committee's estimates, sea level will rise 2-5 feet over the next century. Most conservative estimates put the rise at 3 feet in the Hampton Roads area. A Category One storm surge is 4-6 feet.

"What that means is, you're basically going to get (the equivalent of) a Category One storm surge twice a day," said William "Skip" Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a Norfolk-based group sounding the alarm on sea-level rise. "It's a slow-motion hurricane heading toward Virginia. You have time to prepare, but not a lot, and when it comes it's not going to go away."

Norfolk and the cities around it are not the only places in the eye of this storm. In Annapolis, City Dock floods frequently. So do many neighborhoods in Eastport, home to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Baltimore, too, could be dealing with major storm surges and flooding in historic Fells Point row houses and the glitzy office buildings and tourist attractions that surround the Inner Harbor. The city got a taste of that during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, when residents canoed up and down the cobblestone streets after a record storm surge. Since then, the Inner Harbor has flooded more than once, cutting off the city's main east-west artery.

Sea-level rise has long been an issue too obvious to ignore in many low-lying Chesapeake areas. Dozens of Bay islands have become submerged during the last century, both because of sea-level rise and erosion from strong winds and tides. Hooper's Island ceded Lower Hooper's nearly a century ago to the water surrounding it; residents still lose about 24 acres of their beloved land each year. The community of Tylerton, on Smith Island, was slowly losing ground to Tangier Sound until the Army Corps of Engineers built a $2 million bulkhead in 2001. The sea encroached on the shores of Holland Island over the last century; the wind finally helped to finish it off last year as the island's last house was lost forever.

The loss of those beloved communities is hard to bear, but losing ground in cities is of an entirely different magnitude. Norfolk is home to important infrastructure, including the Norfolk Naval Air station, a bustling port, a major naval shipyard and the largest coal export facility - not to mention two rail lines crucial to the nation's freight systems. Annapolis has the U.S. Naval Academy, which began investing in its own flood protections immediately after Isabel. A brick wall along Prince George's Street now protects the campus. The Inner Harbor is the heart of Baltimore's tourism industry, which brought in $4.4 billion last year alone. There is a lot at stake; a lot that could be lost.

And yet, many scientists believe that governments are not moving fast enough with plans to protect their assets - in part because the issue has been mired in a larger political debate about whether global warming is real and how serious a problem it is. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global organization looking at the effects of the warming temperatures, put out a report projecting sea level would only rise between 0.18 and 0.59 meters over the next 100 years. When scientists complained this report did not take ice calving - the breaking off of glaciers - into consideration, the authors revised their predictions to 0.8 to 2 meters, but favored the low end of the range.

Those estimates are too conservative, said Maryland State Climatologist Konstantin Yinnikov. Moreover, they give an estimate for a variety of topographies that don't mean a lot in the Chesapeake Bay region, where sea level rise is occurring at about twice the global pace. Around the Bay, the land tends to be low and is in many places sinking - or subsiding, as geologists say - and the water is everywhere.

"It will be much faster and much stronger, maybe even catastrophic," said Yinnikov, who published his first paper on climate change as a young Russian researcher in 1976. Even after 35 years of continued research, he said, much is still unknown about the extent to which urban areas around the Bay are at risk.

"The information we provide to our governments is not good enough, and all of our predictions are very suspect," he said. "There are many very complicated issues. I do not see enough effort from humankind to make better predictions."

Wet streets in Hampton Roads

When Stiles began talking about disappearing wetlands a decade ago, it was hard to get people to listen. But that was before Tropical Storm Isabel and the four devastating storms that followed (Nor'easters in 2006 and 2009, a September 2008 storm, and the recent Hurricane Irene); before once-episodic flooding became more of a monthly occurrence. It's not that people in Hampton Roads are universal believers in global warming; it's just that they want someone to take responsibility for the mess in their front yards.

Now Stiles regularly has an audience of mayors and city council members who turn to him for advice. "In Norfolk, there are no skeptics," he said. "We don't talk about climate change, but if you talk about sea-level rise, everybody gets it."

At a time when the Republican presidential candidates are debating whether climate change is man-made, Hampton Roads residents are dealing with facts on an increasingly soggy ground. Many of them know what's happening to them, if not necessarily why it's happening.

Sea-level rise is happening because the polar ice caps on land in Greenland and Antarctica are melting, adding water to the oceans, and warmer water at that. When water becomes warmer, it expands. This raises the level of water in the ocean, pushing it into coastal areas.

In the Chesapeake region, sea-level rise is coupled with land subsidence, adding to the net effect of higher water. The land around the Bay is slowly sinking for a variety of reasons. Those include the compression of surface sediment layers, deep layer compression from groundwater extraction, the slow collapse of the bulge created in this region by the last ice age, the regional subsidence of the tectonic plate underlying the region, and the continued depression of the continent's margin by the weight of seawater and accumulating sediment.

Hurricanes intensify when the water temperature is warmer. At the same time, when hurricanes or less intense storms produce a storm surge, that surge threatens more area because the seawater level is higher.

The problem is occurring all over the mid-Atlantic. But it's worse in Hampton Roads, which has the highest rate of sea-level rise on the Atlantic Coast. Many of the communities there were built on filled-in wetlands and creek beds. Land in Norfolk is subsiding at about .57 inches a decade, according the city's public works department. That is the fastest rate in the region, according to a 2010 report that Boon and two other researchers prepared for VIMS.

"The first thing we had to do was prove that [sea-level rise] was happening," said Fred Brusso Jr., the floodplain manager for Portsmouth, a city across the river from Norfolk.

It wasn't that hard, thanks to the Sewells Point tide gauge at the Naval Station Norfolk, which monitors tides at the convergence of the Lafayette River and Willoughby Bay. Over the last century, the gauges have registered about a foot and a half of sea-level rise. But, Brusso noted, Sewells was beginning to show acceleration in the 1980s. Evidence mounted. A neighboring city, Poquoson, which is 7 feet above sea level at its highest point, began to flood not only in severe hurricanes, but also in smaller, unnamed storms.

Brusso consulted with Stiles to develop new building requirements so that all new structures will be high enough to withstand rising waters, and have flood vents to protect their foundations from cracking. He also worked with city officials to develop an online mapping tool that showed where all the flood-prone neighborhoods were. If a home is in a flood zone, the seller has to disclose that at least three days before the closing date.

Portsmouth is also developing a reverse-911 system to notify residents who are in danger of a coming flood.

In Virginia Beach, city officials scheduled listening sessions with residents to discuss coastal flooding. Norfolk has hired a Dutch firm to help it develop solutions, which range from new requirements that all homes and schools be built at higher elevations to requiring flood vents on storm drains so the water doesn't flow back into the streets during storms.

A 100-year storm every year?

In 1933, a whopper of a hurricane pummeled Virginia. Meteorologists would later classify it as a 100-year storm. But that didn't mean the coast would be safe until 2033. A 100-year storm means that the storm has a 1 in 100 chance of happening in a given year. Since the 1933 storm, the Hampton Roads area has experienced eight significant tidal events. Five occurred in the past decade.

One major storm, a 2009 Nor'easter, nearly put James Strickland out of business. His accounting firm, Strickland and Jones, sits a few blocks from the water in the Hague section of Norfolk, near the Chrysler Museum of Art.

Through three days and six tide cycles, the waters pummeled Strickland's building. It cost $250,000 and three months to rebuild. Once everyone moved back in, Strickland began to think about his future there. He didn't know how to protect his property.

"I lay awake at night thinking, 'what can I do?'" he said.

His solution was to go to a home improvement store and purchase a water sealant, which he sprayed on the building's exterior. He then installed metal stakes around the building with detachable flaps. When the forecast calls for heavy rains, Strickland and his staff attach the flaps and fortify the building. A heavy rain in May that caused flooding and storm damage all over town - and killed at least one person - left his office unscathed.

Strickland is glad he found a solution, but he wishes there was more help for businesspeople. He didn't know if his system would work; he couldn't turn to a government agency for help or funding in securing his property. And he learned the hard way that his system had limitations. It buckled under the one-two punch of Irene and Lee, sending 6 inches of water onto his floor. It wasn't as bad as it could have been - there was 2 feet of water outside his office. But, he needed new drywall and new carpet and was out of the building for six weeks.

"People are adapting," he said. "But there's nobody with an overall plan."

In the Larchmont neighborhood, a day after a May 2011 storm, standing water covered the street. City workers had not yet finished with a public works project designed to protect the neighborhood from flooding. In 2010, the city spent $1.25 million to raise the street around the "U" in the neighborhood's center by 18 inches and re-configure the storm drains to prevent backups.

"It usually floods straight from my driveway to the left," said Thom Andersen, an Old Dominion University graduate student who rents property in the neighborhood. About four days out of the month on high tides, Andersen can't park on his street. A few times, when he has hosted parties, he's had to tell his guests to move their cars.

Once, residents didn't want people to know their neighborhood flooded, so their housing values wouldn't drop. But today the word is out; on a real estate listing for a house near where Andersen lives, it spells out the amenities: maple cabinets, ceramic floor, recessed lights. On the bottom, though, is the buyer-beware disclosure: "street and general area are prone to flooding."

Although the street-lifting project was popular in his neighborhood, Stiles and others wonder if the city can afford - or should even pay for - such a piecemeal approach. If Larchmont is going to get a new road, Stiles said, dozens of other communities are going to want one, and the city will have a hard time saying no.

To prove his point, Stiles headed over to 51st Street, a neighborhood slightly east of Old Dominion University and across Colley Bay from Larchmont. Taxpayers have already paid once to raise 51st Street. But a day after a rain, the roadbed was wet.

In the front yards of the three houses on the 800 block of the street, marsh grass grows next to a telephone pole. The houses are in various stages of being raised. On a parking lot nearby, a heron grazed in a puddle.

Stiles knows there is something very wrong with these pictures. But not everyone sees it.

The first house to be lifted on the 800 block sold before it was even finished, for $239,900. Although many other houses in the neighborhood require flood insurance, this deal didn't. According to the listing agent, Andy Hubba, that's because the living area is 8 feet off the ground and the HVAC systems are on decks well above the flooding levels.

"All of Norfolk would have to be underwater for those decks to be submerged," Hubba said.

In that house, Hubba said, a buyer has a water view "99 percent of the time" and has the piece of mind knowing that the home has been built under current guidelines, which take into account more frequent coastal flooding.

The house may be spared in storms, but what about the road? Hubba ponders the question for a moment before saying, "I don't know. That's why I don't live there."

Maps, maps, everywhere

Yinnikov, Maryland's climatologist, thinks scientists are not providing enough information for local governments to make preparations. But the raw information is there for those who seek it. National Geographic partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others to develop clear sea-level rise maps for the region. VIMS has conducted several studies since 1978, often in consultation with Boon. The EPA has done its own research and provided its own maps. The Nature Conservancy, which owns significant property on Virginia's Eastern Shore, paid for its own maps so it could protect its investments. The University of Maryland's Appalachian lab is working with the U.S. National Park Service on a map of lands vulnerable to sea-level rise along the Potomac River. Several years ago, more than a dozen scientists from across the watershed established the Chesapeake Bay Inundation System, which combined tide and wind modeling to accurately predict flooding.

"The idea was to have a system, so that as these storm surges were coming, we could get this data out and turn it around to emergency managers - to get it down to the street level, so that you could see the water coming in graphically," said William Boicourt, a researcher at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point.

But NOAA couldn't fund the effort anymore, Boicourt said, so the system sits mothballed. It was a bitter pill for the researchers, especially two of the ones who lived in the Hampton Roads area. While they were developing the models, Boicourt said, their yards flooded.

Zoe Johnson is trying to help find better information. An urban planner with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Office for a Sustainable Future, she has linked counties and cities with federal money to do their own research on their vulnerability to coastal flooding. With Johnson's help, Annapolis hired a consultant to look at flooding vulnerability at City Dock and in Eastport. Recently, the department gave the city more funds to figure out what kind of regulations and codes it needs in place to minimize future vulnerabilities. And the department will be helping Baltimore with a study it's conducting.

"It is sort of frustrating that we're tied up in that (national climate change) debate," Johnson said. "But we need to separate ourselves from that and deal with adaptation. We need to protect where we've already built, and be smart in areas where we haven't developed."

In Annapolis, the study showed three options: protect, retrea t or abandon. For City Dock, there is only one choice, said Frank Biba, chief of environmental programs in the city's Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs. The study looked at raising everything two feet, but that cost a fortune. The cheaper options included backflow preventers on storm-drain lines.

At some point, Biba said, he'll have to ask the City Council members how much they're willing to spend. Given the choice between immediate needs, such as better stormwater controls, and a gradual sea-level rise over the next century, it's not hard to predict what the priorities will be.

"This isn't at the top of everyone's list at this point," Biba said. "We're prepared to do something about it, but we don't know what, and we can't tell you when."

It isn't just city dwellers but those living along Annapolis's and the Eastern Shore's many suburban developments that need to be aware of sea-level rise. David Burke, a private-sector environmental planner who had a long career with the DNR, said people used to think he was a nut when he spoke of sea-level rise. But now, they can see for themselves as wetland plants sprout in farm fields.

"Various property owners are going to be affected by its secondary effects," Burke said. "The waves can, in deeper water, get larger, and that takes a bigger chunk out of your shoreline."

Annapolis is further along than Baltimore, which is just beginning to study the issue, said Kimberly Burgess, chief of the city's surface water management division. Burgess said she is hoping the data from storm gauges around the harbor lead to more accurate predictions.

"I'm not that old, and I've already experienced three 100-year storms and several 50-year storms," she said. "What are these storm definitions based on? They're based on the data we had on hand."

In Virginia, local government officials are looking for some guidance and funding from the state, but say they aren't finding much.

Virginia's previous governor, Tim Kaine, was interested in more data, and he convened a climate change panel to put together a report. A couple dozen Virginians, including Stiles, served on the panel. They delivered the report, which included several recommendations on tackling sea-level rise. But those were never acted on. Virginia's governor can only serve one term. By 2010, Kaine was out and Bob McDonnell was in. McDonnell has said he is skeptical that human activities are contributing to global warming.

Without a statewide warning system, Stiles is doing what he can. He sends an e-mail to everyone he knows living on the coasts when he receives word of a high tide. He wants to avoid what he calls a disorderly disinvestment of the shoreline, which would hurt the tax base of Hampton Roads communities and send the economy further into a downward spiral. The only way to do that is to have a plan, inform people calmly and do everything sensible to protect the property.

"When you stand up and admit there's a problem, you need a plan for moving forward," Stiles said. "If you don't have one, you're going to see people figuring out ways to cope with it on their own, and their approach is going to be to move."

Sea-Level Rise Resources

Many government agencies and research institutions in the region have put together excellent data and maps on where the sea is rising and how homeowners can protect themselves in Maryland and Virginia. Here are a few links:

Tidewatch at VIMS 
Developed by Dr. John Boon, this site looks at the differences between predicted tides and observed water levels at eight stations around the Bay.

Coastal Atlas at MD Department of Natural Resources 
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has developed a tool for property owners to assess their risk of flooding, county by county, using this interactive map.

Portsmouth Flood Map 
Portsmouth, VA, has developed a flood map for all of the vulnerable areas in the city.

NOAA Tides and Currents 
Click on your state and the station closest to your house to observe sea-level rise conditions.

Chesapeake Adaptation 
National Geographic, NOAA and Burke Consulting were among the partners that came up with a map to assess the risk of sea-level rise Baywide.

Federal Emergency Management Agency 
FEMA has maps and a wealth of information on coastal flooding and preparation.

Chesapeake Inundation Prediction System 
A consortium of scientists from Maryland, Virginia and the federal government collaborated on storm models.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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