A report issued by a sub-panel of the Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel recommended that the state adopt methods borrowed from disaster and emergency management to coordinate Virginia’s response and adaptation to recurrent flooding and sea level rise.

The sub-panel’s report also recommended using a sea level rise projection of 1.5 feet by 2040 for planning purposes, based on one of several scenarios from a 2013 Virginia Institute of Marine Science report. 

Jim Redick, director of emergency preparedness and response for the City of Norfolk and, co-chair of the sub-panel, said that 1.5 feet is “just a starting point,” and that the report recommends adapting strategies based on new or revised scientific data or information. 

Estimates for sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic vary and are continually updated. Choosing a sea level rise projection for planning has resulted in contentious political debates in North Carolina and nationally.

The report also recommends naming a “Resilience Coordinator” for Virginia to coordinate operations, planning, logistics, finance, and administrative activities using an incident command structure.

The report from the Recurrent Flooding Sup-Panel was delivered to Brian Moran, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, and included input from over 100 scientists, business leaders, NGOs, and local and state government representatives.

The sub-panel was created in 2013 following the release of a 2013 VIMS study that identified recurrent flooding from sea level rise as a significant threat to Virginia.

Redick said the “incident command structure” being recommended is a nationwide system used in widespread disasters where multiple agencies, levels of government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector need to coordinate their activities.

“It’s a proven system that works,” said Redick. “The beauty is that it is flexible and scalable.” He added that he thinks Virginia may be the first state to consider the emergency management model -- created to deal with relatively short-term events-- in responding to sea level rise, which is changing slowly but increasingly causing damage to property and infrastructure from storms and recurrent flooding.

The sub-panel is one of several groups in Virginia studying the impacts of sea level rise, including the new Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission convened by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. The commission meets for the first time on September 10. Also meeting on September 10 is the Virginia General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Flooding.

In July, the Obama administration named the Hampton Roads region a “whole of government” pilot project for developing a multi-agency and community wide response to sea level rise that could be replicated in other areas. The region is experiencing the fastest sea level rise rates in the mid-Atlantic due to regional land subsidence. Redick said that the incident command structure recommended by the sub-panel could be readily applied in Hampton Roads.

Other recommendations include developing an information sharing website to serve as a central “reference point” and including high school and university students in problem solving on sea level rise impacts.

There are multiple opportunities, the report says, for helping communities improve their standings with FEMA’s Community Rating System, which the Federal Emergency Management Administration uses to direct disaster relief funding and support. The report also identifies ways that federal agencies could get more “bang for the buck” in local climate change resiliency projects by easing federal funding restrictions.

The sub-panel considered strategic retreat from low-lying areas as one of several adaptation strategies that communities should consider. Redick said that the proposed command structure is inherently adaptive and would help the state and localities communities grapple with these kinds of difficult choices.

The reports expresses confidence that Virginia is collectively on the right track and capable of “turning challenge into opportunity.”
“We’re not focusing on the gloom-and-doom,” said Redick, who was “extremely encouraged” by the process of developing the recommendations. “Everyone worked across the aisle, and just pitched in to make this happen.”

Redick, who has been in emergency management for ten years following a career in the military, said, “I may be ‘Pollyanna’ about this, but being involved in this project has really given me hope.”

The report can be viewed HERE.