Coastwide
William Stiles of the group Wetlands Watch inspects a collapsed water retaining wall in Norfolk, Va. (Photos by Parker Michels-Boyce for The Washington Post)

USA - Climate Change Turns the Tide on Waterfront Living

Rising seas and worsening flooding are forcing many communities to plan their retreat from the coasts

On Richmond Crescent in Norfolk, Va., more than a dozen homes rise in varying heights, forming a streetscape bar graph tracing the past decade’s increasing threat of flooding from an inlet of the Lafayette River. A green house with a prominent front porch is a modest four feet off the ground. Two doors down, a 70-year-old cottage has been newly raised 11 feet on blocks, at a cost of $154,000, nearly all of it federal and state money. On the corner, a one-story white-brick ranch looms about seven feet up, matching the height of the sage-colored brick house next door. A few homes still on ground level hunker among the high and dry houses looking down their proverbial noses at them.

George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, has chosen the city’s affluent Larchmont neighborhood for our walking tour on this unseasonably warm December day. He pauses in the middle of Richmond Crescent, where repeated tidal flooding has cracked and buckled the asphalt, and wetlands grasses fringe the street. Nodding toward a new house that towers 12 feet above sea level, he poses the hard questions that cities and counties are only beginning to acknowledge as waters along the U.S. coasts continue their inevitable invasion. Will the city be better off if people live in that house for another 30 to 50 years but are unable to get in or out during high tides or lingering storms? How long, he asks, does the city maintain the street? Or keep the storm-water and sewer systems operating? What happens years from now, when emergency services can’t get to these homes because the street has flooded? “At some point, the investment in infrastructure can’t be sustained,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”

Hurricanes get the headlines, but on this street, it will be the repeated jabs of flooding day after day from climate change, with its rising tides and increasingly stronger storms, that will force the city to make tough choices. By 2040, projections by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science show, the river will overflow its banks and flood this street twice daily during high tides. Norfolk plans to protect the city with $1.8 billion in storm-surge barriers and flood walls, but those projects — if built — won’t stop the rising tides in Larchmont. The water will come. This is where Norfolk will eventually begin its retreat.

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