A small circle of community members sit in folding chairs in the gym of a YMCA building, surrounded by dollhouses and basketballs. Construction paper cut outs of suns and beach balls line the walls, with letters reading “fun in the sun.” Beside it, a slideshow with a diagram of the greenhouse effect is projected on a pull down screen.
“We have to care about this issue for our children,” says Kim Miller to the room, pointing to a new slide with pictures of flooded streets. “It’s simply up to us to make a difference.”
Miller is the Hampton Roads, Virginia organizer for Mothers Out Front, a volunteer-led organization that she says “empowers women with training, coaching and ideas to move their communities and states from dirty to clean energy.” As a coordinator, Miller often leads these strategy sessions to speak with community members about the issue of climate change.
Norfolk and the surrounding tidewater region comprise an area that is second only to New Orleans in terms of population threatened by sea level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As waters rise and the land surrounding Norfolk sinks—a process called subsidence—the early symptoms of inundation are becoming everyday occurrences.
“We’re seeing the effects of climate change more and more here,” says Miller as she flips through slides explaining the history of the Chesapeake Bay and the greenhouse effect, with pictures of local flooding. “It’s right here in our neighborhood now.”
Tidewater Gardens, in the center of Norfolk and right by the Elizabeth River, is in danger from both the environment and the city. The city is proposing to tear down the community, which offers low income and section eight housing, and rebuild mixed income houses.
Tidewater Gardens is also frequently flooded, often times so much that it makes travel difficult for school buses driving though the roads. The city’s proposal includes plans to not rebuild in places that are frequently flooded, but to instead create parks and green areas.
Across town, water starts to spill over from the Elizabeth River onto Llewelyn Avenue. Cars barely slow down as they pass through the nuisance flooding, a common occurrence on the avenue during high tide that locals are familiar with. This often happens even when there is no rain.
And when there is rain, that road, like many others, becomes impassable. Neighborhood streets become rivers and front yards turn into pools of standing water. Outside the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, children splash in the flooded streets nearly every time there is heavy rainfall. A pond outside the museum that connects with the Elizabeth River overflows quickly during storms, flooding front yards and cars left unattended.
Nuisance flooding has increased in Norfolk in recent years, and is predicted to be an area of chronic inundation by the end of the century, meaning flooding occurs more than 26 times per year.
When it’s not storming in Norfolk, fishermen fill Ocean View Fishing Pier at all hours of the day. Some even stay for multiple days, such as Stanley Cuffee, who sometimes brings a sleeping bag and a camp chair to stay on the pier overnight. Cuffee has lived on the Chesapeake Bay most of his life.
“I’m Chesapeake born and raised. I learned how to swim in these waters. I’ve seen them build roads and I’ve seen those roads flood,” says Cuffee, who believes that despite climate change, the Bay has been improving. “The Bay really does look better now, it will just take time.”
Time is something that the region is working against when it comes to sea level rise. Since 1880, global sea level has risen about eight inches, even more so in Virginia, where it has risen 14.5 inches between 1930 and 2010. By the end of the century, global sea level is projected to rise by another one to four feet.
Chesapeake Bay partners are working to increase the climate resilience of communities across the region to increase their ability to adapt to these projected changes. To that end, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Climate Resiliency Workgroup is working to develop a database of climate data and mapping resources so that communities are equipped with the knowledge to prepare for the future.
Preparation is key, but so too is community engagement. The city council delayed indefinitely the vote on the plan to redevelop Tidewater Gardens in part to work on better reaching out to the community to listen to concerns, answer questions and solicit input.
Sea level rise is a global problem, but there are local solutions. Norfolk, with its large population, military presence, seaside location and subsiding land, has quite a few factors that put the spotlight on its challenges. But a combination of preparation and participation can put the city—and region—in a better place to handle them.