Disparate but urgent efforts to address sea-level rise in the Virginia Tidewater, one of the country’s most important strategic centers, are striving to keep up with visible realities.
By Brett Anderson / Photography by Sahar Coston-Hardy
The first question that sprang to Ann C. Phillips’s mind soon after she moved to Norfolk, Virginia, in 2006 was, “Why, when it rains, does the whole place submerge?”
She wasn’t referring only to dramatic weather events, although Phillips, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, landed in Norfolk during a bumper crop of those: Norfolk saw more major coastal storms and hurricanes in the 2000s than in the four previous decades combined, according to the city government.
Harder to fathom were the floods caused by light rains and “blue sky floods” triggered by lunar tides. Tidal flooding affects low-lying areas of Norfolk nine times per year on average.
These more regular floods were unlike anything Phillips experienced growing up in Annapolis, Maryland. They’re an alarmingly routine part of life in Norfolk and the surrounding Hampton Roads area of Virginia, and dangerous, too, even if they’re not the stuff of Weather Channel viewer bonanzas.
“If you have a doctor’s appointment,” Phillips said, “you can’t get down the street. That’s a problem.”
It’s one of many problems, big and small, that floods cause around Hampton Roads, the name of a channel linking three rivers with the Chesapeake Bay as well as the coastal community that is home to 1.7 million residents and a dense collection of cities and towns, including Newport News, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and Norfolk, Virginia’s second-largest city.
The area, striped by rivers and creeks, is literally surrounded by water. Its coastal location is magnetic: Hampton Roads is home to the world’s largest naval base and the East Coast’s third-largest port, as well as NASA’s Langley Research Center, Langley Air Force Base, and a crazy quilt of government agency outposts.
Since retiring from the navy in 2014, Phillips has devoted significant energy to understanding the granular irritations of the persistent floods as well as the macro consequences of the crisis behind the floods: sea-level rise.
She recently enrolled in the Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional Certification program, designed to bring landscape professionals up to speed on the Hampton Roads watershed. It’s part of an ongoing education that has aided Phillips’s efforts to restore the wetlands in her Norfolk neighborhood along Wayne Creek, which runs past a collapsing bulkhead in her backyard.
Phillips had already taken a leadership role in bringing together the region’s sundry municipalities to collaborate in the fight against sea-level rise. And she serves on the advisory board of the Center for Climate and Security, a high-level, nonpartisan policy institute focused on the existential threats climate change poses to the country and its defense.
Phillips tidily represents the wide-ranging if still largely informal effort to fortify Hampton Roads before it’s too late.
“It helps being able to tell the story from the military level down to the grassroots level,” Phillips said. Her diverse volunteer work portfolio puts her in front of audiences from all walks of life. And when she speaks to them, she invariably circles back to Hampton Roads’ considerable assets.
“When I rattle off all these facts and figures, people say, ‘I had no idea there were so many people there; I had no idea there was a port there; I had no idea there was so much military there,’” Phillips said of the response she receives from military, government, and citizen audiences. “The goal is to inform people about just how much is at risk here.”
If more people understood what was at risk, the thinking goes, then more people would be alarmed to know that Hampton Roads is one of a handful of American communities most vulnerable to sea-level rise.
Hampton Roads was developed without much thought given to paving over native grasslands and wetlands or filling in waterways. It is widely believed that the floods caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, a sprawling metropolis that grew in a similar manner, were more severe given the absence of these naturally pervious surfaces, which act like giant sponges during heavy rain.
But the root of the problem in Hampton Roads has to do with the land and the water going in the wrong directions. Much of the land in the low-elevation community is subsiding, while ocean circulation patterns have caused Hampton Roads to experience above-average sea-level rise. Relative sea-level rise takes into account both of these factors.
“When it comes to relative sea-level rise, we’re second only to New Orleans,” said David Imburgia, the environmental and sustainability manager with the City of Hampton.
Absent a headline-grabbing weather event like Hurricane Katrina (or, more recently, Harvey, Irma, or Maria), Hampton Roads’ concerned citizens and civic leaders are left to point to nuisance flooding as evidence that the area faces grave dangers—dangers that will only grow graver if the community is numb to the warning signs.
“Mom and Dad come riding bikes down here, like it’s completely normal to ride in a foot of saltwater,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University (ODU). We were driving down a street last April in Larchmont–Edgewater, a Norfolk neighborhood, on a tour of the city’s flood-prone, subsidence-scarred areas.
Carol Considine, an ODU engineering technology professor coguiding the tour, said many of Norfolk’s neighborhoods were built atop creek beds. “They’re the ones having problems.”
Atkinson pointed to a sailboat in the distance on the Lafayette River. “There used to be a spit of land that went out that far,” he said. “There’s nothing there now.”
Atkinson, Considine, Imburgia, and Phillips are players in a large-scale effort to address sea-level rise in Hampton Roads by any means available—and, in the process, cut through the denial to chart a path toward sustainable living. The effort is diffuse and still embryonic, but it’s also sincere, with many interrelated projects on the way to producing groundbreaking results.
On Fort Monroe, a decommissioned military installation in Hampton, off the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, Glenn Oder, FASLA, a landscape architect and the executive director of the Fort Monroe Authority, has had to balance the need for innovation with the design limitations baked into the fort’s designation as a National Historic Landmark District. One innovation has been to turn the moat around the original fort into what Oder calls “a man-made retention basin.”
Stone groins, built after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, created a fan-shaped beach that breaks up waves before they hit a seawall. “It’s not going to solve sea-level rise,” Oder said, “but it’s great protection.”
ODU, thanks to the efforts of Atkinson, Considine, and others, has positioned itself in a leadership role, specifically through its Resilience Collaborative, a facilitator of cross disciplinary research and education in climate change and sea-level rise. ODU was central to the application process that last year brought more than $120 million in grant money from the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation, to aid in the fight against rising seas in Norfolk.
The area had already been named one of four urban coastal areas at the center of another Rockefeller-funded initiative called Structures of Coastal Resilience. The project, created in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, studied and then proposed urban designs for the chosen areas, which also included Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island; Jamaica Bay in New York; and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Such efforts productively shape the anxiety emanating from citizens, who are starting to raise questions similar to those of Phillips.
“What’s really starting to irk people is the frequency with which this stuff is happening,” said Terry O’Neill, the City of Hampton’s director of community development. “Floods used to happen two to three times a year. Now it’s 10 times a year. That frequency is starting to raise people’s antennae that there’s something happening here.”
O’Neill’s team, which includes Imburgia, a climate scientist by training, is working to implement public projects that both generate revenue and alleviate persistent flooding.
I visited the sites of two early-stage initiatives in the city of Hampton, one a proposed linear park along Newmarket Creek, the other a modification to an existing waterfront park in Phoebus, a historic district in downtown Hampton. Both are being designed by Waggonner & Ball Architects, a New Orleans firm, and are animated by ideas generated during the Dutch Dialogues, a workshop held in 2015 with the goal of applying integrated water management expertise from the Netherlands to Hampton Roads.
Waggonner & Ball principal David Waggonner conceived the first Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans with Dale Morris, a senior economic adviser with the Royal Netherlands Embassy. It was a series of symposia and charrettes held from 2008 to 2010 that focused on water management, infrastructure, and landscape design. The result is a citywide “water plan” that emphasizes the importance of natural drainage systems, not just the constructed ones.
“To make water the primary element is the big change, and the Dutch were who really taught us that,” Waggonner explained in an interview at his Garden District office in New Orleans. “They said, ‘If you don’t have a water system, you don’t have a foundation.’ Here, we just had an engineering system.”
The broad concept of “living with water,” as opposed to repelling it, was one that Hampton Roads officials asked Waggonner and Morris to help them implement in Virginia.
“The Dutch are good at this,” Imburgia said. “They are not land rich like we are, so every stitch of land has to have multiple reasons for why it is the way it is. That’s one of the lessons we try to take from them.”
Construction of the Newmarket Creek project didn’t begin until late summer and fall, but O’Neill and his team shared the rationale for their decisions in a PowerPoint presentation and in visits to two points along the waterway: one at an existing promenade next to Hampton Coliseum, and another in a wooded area across a small lake from the arena.
Donald Whipple, the chief city planner with the City of Hampton, studied landscape architecture at Virginia Tech before getting his master’s degree in urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia. Standing in the shadow of the coliseum, he explained that a bike lane from a heavily traveled bridge in the distance would be routed through the promenade, which is shaded by trees but sits in the midst of roadways and parking lots.
Interpretive signage underscoring the coliseum’s historic significance—the band Phish loves the venue, long ago dubbing it the “Mothership”—will line a path to the edge of the lake, where town houses abut a wooded area surrounding the creek.
“A lot of our community doesn’t realize the creek area over here even exists,” Whipple explained. We pushed through the brush to the edge of the creek. The area around the creek is largely ungroomed. The team’s goal, here and elsewhere along the planned Newmarket Creek park, is to accentuate the value of the natural environment currently unmoored from the community around it.
Across from the coliseum, the plan calls for running the trail through a linear park filled with native grasses and other plants, the deep root systems of which allow the land to hold more water. This in turn relieves pressure on the creek, a critical artery for both tidewater and storm runoff, which in turn reduces flooding. And the park will recast the creek as an urban amenity, filled with kayaks and paddleboards.
“One of the takeaways from the Dutch Dialogues was to layer on these public benefits,” O’Neill explained. “We want to enhance the real estate around [the creek]. Instead of an ugly ditch with some water, it becomes a place with environmental value, with recreational value. We have to pay for this stuff somehow. And by making this a much more attractive place to live, the value of the property on the water will probably go up, too.”
Mason Andrews knows what it’s like to live with water. The associate professor in Hampton University’s Department of Architecture grew up in Norfolk and moved into the city’s Hague neighborhood in 1999. Her Queen Anne style house, built in 1901, overlooks a creek, also called the Hague, in an area that has become notorious for recurrent flooding.
“That was on a day when we didn’t have a storm,” Andrews said, after handing me a photograph of kayakers paddling down Mowbray Arch, the street outside her house.
Andrews was enjoying an early evening bourbon next to her unlit marble fireplace last summer, along with Mujde Erten-Unal, an associate professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at ODU. Since 2014, the professors have been working together with their students to develop resilience adaptation plans for Norfolk neighborhoods particularly vulnerable to flooding and sea-level rise.
With support from Wetlands Watch, a statewide nonprofit organization that focuses on wetland conservation, the students started in Chesterfield Heights, a low- to moderate-income, largely African American neighborhood along the Elizabeth River. “I teach at an HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities], and part of our department’s mission is to serve underserved communities,” Andrews explained. “This was not an area the city was looking to spend a lot of money on.”
The students interviewed Chesterfield Heights residents about how the floods affected their properties and then brainstormed ideas. Their goal was to design low-cost adaptations that wouldn’t disrupt what the residents regarded as the community’s essential character.
“We looked at raising (the houses) and ran away from that,” Andrews said, pointing out that the Heights has a strong “porch culture.” “That’s where the life of the community happens. When you raise those porches six feet higher, that puts the kibosh on porch culture.”
One of Erten-Unal’s students found a record of a soil boring from a public works stormwater project that indicated more water could be held underground, which, coupled with the discovery of the remains of brick streets, got them thinking about using the land as an asset.
“Any time you can get groundwater down is good,” Andrews said, echoing a key tenet the Dutch emphasized in New Orleans and Hampton Roads: that pumping water out of the ground is actually two errors disguised as a flood-control solution, as it causes subsidence while eliminating the benefit land provides as a kind of natural catch basin.
And Chesterfield Heights, with its outdated drainage system and flat topography, needs all of the help it can get. “The stormwater lines are actually acting as conduits for tidewater, backing up into the neighborhood,” Andrews said.
The team recommended a network of solutions, including bioretention cells, cisterns, living shorelines, a raised road, and a manual gate that would keep rainwater in wetlands during high tides. Some Norfolk city officials attended the students’ final presentation, in May of 2015. “Lightbulbs went off,” Andrews said.
The students’ work became the basis for Norfolk’s entry into the Hampton Roads Dutch Dialogues, which began that June. And student design ideas made it onto the proposal, drafted the same summer, that helped secure a grant of more than $120 million for Virginia from the HUD/Rockefeller resilience competition.
When I visited David Waggonner at his office in July, he and his staff were working on the beginning stages of a water management project, funded by the NDRC, that they’re designing for Chesterfield Heights, which is part of the larger Ohio Creek Watershed Project. Ramiro Diaz, an architectural designer, planner, and photographer at Waggonner & Ball, described the broader strategy to “slow” stormwater at higher elevations, using some of the same tools described by Andrews, as a way to mitigate flooding in low-lying areas.
“When the tide is high, there is nowhere for the water to go, because the catch basins are full already with seawater,” he said.
Diaz then cued up a graphic on a large computer monitor of Haynes Creek Stormwater Park, an area that is currently, in Waggonner’s words, “a scrubby wetland that people don’t even know is there because it’s all overgrown.” Waggonner & Ball’s plan calls for turning the area into a park that can hold large quantities of water during storms and high tides, an approach that underscores Waggonner’s belief that the community benefits when hydrology is emphasized over hydraulics.
“We want to minimize levees and minimize pumping,” Waggonner said. “Levees require maintenance; levees induce pumping; pumping induces subsidence. None of those things are things you’d seek, to interrupt the natural system.”
SCAPE Landscape Architecture is partnering with Waggonner & Ball on the Chesterfield Heights project, which is being led by Arcadis, the design and engineering consultancy. Pippa Brashear, ASLA, SCAPE’s director of planning and resilience, said the park will work together with other solutions, including raised roadways, to create an integrated flood protection system that will help make the neighborhood “not just flood protected but resilient.”
SCAPE’s particular role in the larger Ohio Creek Watershed Project, Brashear explained, is to become expert in the area’s natural systems. “How much water is moving? How much water do we need to store? How does that work with the historic stream channels that are there?”
Andrews and Erten-Unal, for their part, have directed their students’ attention to other Norfolk neighborhoods. They’re particularly proud to have fostered communication between budding engineers and architects, something Andrews believes will be enhanced even more if her wish is realized to bring a landscape architect onto Hampton’s faculty.
“That’s the mediating field between architecture and engineering,” Andrews said, referring to landscape architecture.
A goal of many of the government-funded resiliency projects I visited last spring and summer in Hampton Roads is to set examples that citizens can follow on private property. Regionally unique expertise and deep community engagement are both required for that goal to be realized. The new Chesapeake Bay Landscape Professional Certification program aims to address these knowledge deficiencies by training both professionals and nonprofessionals in landscape practices specifically applicable to Hampton Roads.
“We wanted to come up with a certification that brought everyone up to an understanding of sustainable landscape practices,” explained Shereen Hughes, a landscape designer instrumental in developing the program for a consortium of ecological nonprofits and the University of Maryland Extension. Hughes, who is also an assistant director of Wetlands Watch, said the certification is meant to benefit landscape architects and designers as well as horticulturists and grounds maintenance employees.
Wetlands Watch has been trying to motivate private citizens with waterfront property to replace bulkheads with “soft” shorelines and to get all property owners to join in the effort to slow down runoff.
“The whole idea is to try and capture as much runoff [as possible] from all impervious surfaces on a site, including the roof and the pavement,” she said. The certification program “will train people to do that.”
Ann P. Stokes, ASLA, principal of Ann P. Stokes Landscape Architects in Norfolk, signed up for the certification program last year, even though she’s a licensed landscape architect who grew up in the area.
“I’m interested in what direction the thinking is moving in,” Stokes said. “How do we deal with erosion control along shorelines and flood mitigation today, and how are we going to deal with it in the future?”
I met Stokes in Ghent Square, a shaded park with a semipublic swimming pool at the center of a neighborhood built in the 1970s, before flooding was a chronic problem. She had recently received a contract to redesign the park to help the surrounding neighborhood better absorb runoff.
As we walked along a street of tightly packed houses with a deficit of naturally pervious surfaces, Stokes pointed to a shallow, narrow gutter on the ground. “Almost all of the roof water from all these houses goes into this gutter and overwhelms the system,” she said. “It floods here all the time.”
For many residents who live along the many tidal rivers and creeks in Hampton Roads, a crisis greater than flooding is erosion. This was evident on the properties of two other Stokes clients. The first we visited was a two-story colonial on the Lafayette River. The property ended at a crumbling bulkhead where, on one stretch of shoreline, Stokes had created a sill with a riprap revetment made of granite.
“When the waves come in, the force of the waves is broken by the sill,” Stokes said. Native marsh grasses serve as an additional buffer between the water and the lawn.
On another stretch of shoreline, she’d installed what look like concrete blocks made of crushed oyster shells. As she described how she expected oyster beds to form around the blocks, providing protection similar to the sill while also filtering pollutants from the water, Stokes noticed a badly eroded wetland on the other side of the river.
“That marsh is half the size it was 10 years ago,” she said.
On another client’s property, Stokes planted a thick layer of Spartina and marsh marigold, abetted by coir logs made of coconut husks, inserted to combat river erosion that had already cost the owner a sizable chunk of his lawn.
As we drove to and from the job sites, Stokes, who grew up in Norfolk, became increasingly animated by the potential trouble she spotted around her: the hard surfaces, the eroding marsh, the crumbling seawalls, the houses built too close to the water’s edge. It reminded me of something she told me in an earlier conversation. “I would love it if more landscape architects were here,” she said. “There’s a lot going on.”
Brett Anderson is a contributing writer to the New York Times.