About an inch of rain had fallen the previous day. Carolyn White knew what to expect.
But a demonstration was in order, so she stepped gingerly onto her front lawn, showing how the ground audibly squished under foot.
“When you stand in the yard, it feels like mush even if it hasn’t been raining,” said White, 69, who was born and raised in this rapidly developing corner of Suffolk, VA. “It just sits there.”
After more than a decade of planning, city officials expect to begin work by the end of this year on the core elements of a flood relief project in White’s neighborhood. Known as Pughsville, the community founded by formerly enslaved people has struggled for years to get help with its worsening issues with standing water.
Now they’re on the verge of getting it, but some residents are skeptical that the new infrastructure will do much good. They contend that officials have largely disregarded their input on how the project should unfold, and they disagree with assumptions about the way water drains from the mostly African American neighborhood.
“A lot of people are so fearful that [the city] is going to take their house [through eminent domain] if they go down there to speak up,” said White, who is Black.
Still, some voiced their concerns at a community meeting in November 2021 and at a City Council meeting in January 2022. Several residents said the city was at least partly to blame for the flooding woes by repeatedly permitting new homes to replace forested lots.
“Before you all allowed the development so rapidly, water flowed through all of the ditches in and out of Pughsville, and it didn’t affect anybody’s homes,” Pamela Brandy, vice president of the Pughsville Civic League, told the council. “Once you started allowing the people to develop crazily, that is what has altered the direction of the natural path of the water.”
White and her husband, Wayne, who is president of the civic league, say that flooding got noticeably worse with the construction of Interstate 664 in the 1990s. The highway now forms the eastern boundary of the neighborhood.
“The water is dumping in on us from the interstate,” Carolyn White said.
Citing a 2012 drainage study, city engineers say that isn’t the case. The 400-acre community generally slopes from northwest to southeast, putting the interstate on the receiving end of the community’s stormwater, not vice versa.
The main problem, according to the study, is that all that land is almost exclusively drained by just two natural channels. Both merge into a single waterway before emptying through a single outfall beneath I-664.
“You have a massive amount of water going through this small area that’s just not being accommodated,” said Luke Drylie, a project manager for the Suffolk Public Works Department.
Pughsville itself grew haphazardly over many decades. If stormwater was ever considered, it was shunted into roadside open ditches. When Suffolk took control of its road system from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2006, Pughsville quickly stood out as the most flood-prone area, said Darryll Lewis, assistant director of Public Works.
“It’s probably the worst we have in the city of Suffolk,” Lewis said of the sprawling municipality, which absorbed Nansemond County in the 1970s. “We have areas with localized flooding but nothing like this.”
Hurricane Matthew in 2016 raised the stakes further. The storm dumped about a foot of rain, bringing floodwaters in some parts of the Pughsville over the tops of cars.
In 2018, the city began moving forward with a drainage overhaul for Pughsville. That year saw the installation of four culverts to relieve water backups. But that was only a “temporary fix,” Lewis said.
The second phase, which is set to begin in November, will collect stormwater in a large underground pipe and direct it toward a new retention pond. While the main goal of the $7 million project is to prevent a Matthew-level flood, it will also provide environmental benefits by slowing down the stormwater, allowing much of the pollutants to settle out, Lewis said.
The water exiting Pughsville eventually finds its way to the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, a tributary of the James River.
One of the reasons the work has taken so much time, officials say, is that Suffolk can’t go it alone. Part of the project’s footprint crosses into the adjacent city of Chesapeake. That city is undertaking a $2 million project to upgrade culverts, timing it to coincide with the Suffolk work.
“This is a good opportunity for us to work with our neighbors on stormwater issues,” said Earl Sorey, Chesapeake’s public works director.
But Carolyn White and other residents say that Suffolk could have been more neighborly to its own people. When the city was designing the proposed retention pond, it chose a site where two owner-occupied homes would need to be bought and razed.
Lewis said that planners did everything they could to minimize the impact to the neighborhood while still providing adequate flood resilience. He rejected a location farther west that some residents had suggested, arguing that it wouldn’t be able to trap stormwater to the east.
“They seem to think we can get water to go back uphill,” he said.
Even when the project is finished — its scheduled completion date is June 2025 — it likely won’t be the last time the city needs to spend money fixing Pughsville’s flooding problems, Drylie said. There will probably need to be a phase III and a phase IV.
“What we’re doing will be a big improvement,” he added, “but it won’t be the ultimate solution. I don’t know how much it will really cost to solve this problem — maybe $10 million to $12 million more. But we will provide benefit to them.”
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