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Settled on the southern banks of the Chesapeake’s mouth to the Atlantic, Norfolk, Virginia is a 400-year old port city rich in history. Walking the streets of this charming coastal area, you won’t have to walk far to see that history. A cannonball has remained embedded in the wall of St. Paul’s Church since 1776, when British troops attacked and burned the city. Historic sites like Jamestown, Yorktown, and Fort Monroe are all within driving distance. A number of buildings still around today saw the struggles of slavery and the city’s surrender to the Union during the Civil War, and remnants and relics of the last few hundred years speckle the city with historical intrigue. Home to the largest naval base in the world as well as the third busiest port city on the East Coast, Norfolk is also home base for a diverse population rich in culture and community.
It’s also my hometown. And it’s also one of the most prone cities in America to the impacts of sea-level rise as a result of climate change.
Something that’s crucial to know about Norfolk and the Hampton Roads area is that its level of environmental vulnerability, particularly regarding sea-level rise, is dually impacted by two core problems. First (and perhaps the clearest) is the frequency and intensity at which global increases in sea level are impacting the area. While it’s clear that Norfolk is susceptible to threats like storm surges and major floods simply because of its status as a coastal city, the data from the past century prove alarming. Since the early 1900s, sea levels in Norfolk have risen about 1.5 feet—a figure that’s twice the global average.
The reason is tied to the texture of the land the city was built on in the 1600s. While to colonists it looked like sturdy land with easy port access and plenty of potential maritime transportation routes, Norfolk is actually built on filled-in marshlands, wetlands, and creek beds…in other words, land saturated with higher water content than areas further inland, and land that doesn’t make for the most solid foundation when it comes to infrastructural development.
Translation? Norfolk is essentially doubly threatened by the impacts of sea-level rise because it’s literally sinking at the same time.
I’ll be completely honest: the details scare the living daylights out of me. A map projecting lost communities and landmarks from sea-level rise showed my neighborhood completely submerged if smart responses aren’t implemented. This can be visualized full-force with the calculated impact on transportation in the area. If sea levels were to increase by 1 foot, the number of roadways impacted is said to be about 35 miles. Increase that to 1.5 feet, and the number is over 100 miles. Continue that to 3 feet (the current projection) and you’ve got 269 miles of roadways impacted upon which hundreds of thousands depend on for transportation on a daily basis. With the 3 foot figure also comes loss or disabled community access to more than 120 critical assets like schools, fire and police stations, and a major hospital. On top of all of that, without a solid resiliency plan, a major hurricane with enough strength has the ability to wipe out our country’s (and the world’s) largest naval base.
If the whole ‘sinking’ problem sounds familiar, it might be because you read about an incredibly similar issue in New Orleans. But that’s not the only thing Norfolk and New Orleans have in common. Rates of homeownership fall below state averages in both cities. Both have quite a significant population of military veterans. And both have a notably higher percentage of African Americans and individuals living below the poverty line than their state averages. All in all, both cities face a major dilemma that goes far beyond coastal resiliency for the sake of the land itself. The communities that could potentially be displaced as a result of too much focus on inland retreat disproportionately affect those who are already the most vulnerable, and thus the tone and tenor of resiliency plans must keep them at the forefront of consideration.
At the end of the day, with upwards of 400,000 homes currently in storm surge areas, the need for sound coastal resiliency planning and preparation in Norfolk is clear. While the city and its leadership don’t have all the answers yet, the conversation has begun, and steps are being taken to protect this precious southeastern gem of a city. Street-raising projects have begun and major flood walls are being planned and implemented. To protect the naval base that ensures such a huge portion of economic health for the region, for example, the Navy is working to install protective barriers to dry docks at Norfolk Naval Shipyard amongst other areas. $2m have been awarded to small businesses to work toward innovative product design to foster sea level adaptation for the area, and officials are working to strengthen the most vulnerable areas of the city while reinvigorating areas most in need of growth and support.
Right now, it’s critical that Norfolk pairs economic development with climate resiliency strategies, with a special laser-focus on creative innovation. But partisanship has the potential to threaten progress of key projects. When proposals are made that are far too ‘left’ or ‘right’ in both content and tone, common ground can’t be found, and compromises can’t be made. When compromises and deeper discussions can’t be had to find that common ground, no work is able to be done.
That’s why I, as a coastal Virginian and Norfolk native, find so much hope in the American Climate Contract. What Norfolk and Hampton Roads is most in need of right now is a solutions package that offers dual environmental and economic solution sets, with a plan that focuses on conservation and environmental resilience, featuring solid, economically-stimulating components. Since the American Climate Contract focuses on innovation as the answer to our biggest climate dilemmas, its non-partisan recommendations are clear, essential and unbelievably fitting for a city as in need of solutions as mine. With solid recommendations on flood control infrastructure, I know the American Climate Contract can play a huge role for my state and local leadership in really coming to terms with the importance of crossing party lines to invest in sustainable, resilient, environmentally and economically friendly climate response plans.
In a city where the economy is fully dependent on the health and structural wellbeing of the environment it both figuratively and literally relies on, and in a world where partisanship constantly dismantles any real progress, the American Climate Contract presents exactly what is needed: answers.
Learn more about the American Climate Contract and take action today.
This is the seventh installment of “My Contract Story,” an ongoing series on the ACC Blog to tell personal stories of ACC team members and allies about why they support the American Climate Contract. Read previous editions here.