D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada (D) join the Politics Hour crew in the studio.
As New York and New Jersey grapple with how best to protect themselves from future storms like Hurricane Sandy, cities like Norfolk, Va., and Ocean City, Md., are leading by example. Long subject to tidal and storm flooding, these local coastal communities are knee-deep in shoring up their defenses against rising sea levels. And in Ocean City, those efforts are paying off. Kojo explores how local beachfront communities are preparing for the worst, and whether those efforts are enough in an increasingly unpredictable climate.
- Ron Williams Assistant City Manager, City of Norfolk, VA
- Terry McGean City Engineer, Ocean City, MD.
- Carl Hershner Director, Center for Coastal Resources Management at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
- Bryan Russo Coastal Reporter, WAMU 88.5; Host, Coastal Connection, 88.3 (Ocean City)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Hurricane Sandy's destructive power was a sobering reminder for New York and New Jersey that unpredictable weather patterns paired with rising sea levels require long-term plans, not Band-Aid fixes. It's a reality that our region has grappled with for years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo while cities like New York prepare to protect themselves against future floods, they're taking notes from communities like Norfolk and Ocean City. Norfolk has been ranked second only to New Orleans among U.S. coastal cities threatened by flooding, and Ocean City has been fortifying itself for decades against waters that have risen nearly a quarter inch per year, according to some estimates.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo how are these cities protecting their people and property from rising seas, and how do they adjust and readjust to the realities of living on the coast? Joining us now from studios in Ocean City is Terry McGean, city engineer for Ocean City, Md. Terry McGean, thank you for joining us.
MR. TERRY MCGEANThank you. Good morning.
NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios in Ocean City is our own Bryan Russo, coastal reporter for WAMU. He's also host of "Coastal Connection" on 88.3 in Ocean City. Hi, Bryan. How is it going?
MR. BRYAN RUSSOHey, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII'm doing well. Terry, I'll start with you. Hurricane Sandy seems to have been a wake up call that a more long-term vision is needed to protect our coastal communities from flooding and rising sea levels, but in Ocean City, you've been having these kinds of talk since the 1970s. Tell us about your strategy.
MCGEANThat's true. I think when you live is near the ocean, as we do here in Ocean City, it's always on your mind. Starting in the mid-'70s, we established what we call the building limit line to prevent people from moving any further eastward and destroying anymore dune systems. And as we've moved forward, we've taken a multi-effort here to deal with sea level rise and storm damage here in Ocean City.
MCGEANWe have of course the beach replenishment project, which is something that's very widely known and publicized, but what some of the things people don't see are a lot of our building codes that that we require much tougher standards to build here in Ocean City than -- even FEMA requires we get some pushback sometimes from developers. It's sometimes not the easiest thing to do, but we've learned through the years the importance of these very strict building codes.
NNAMDIWell, Terry, you credit your beach replenishment program with preventing heavy damage to your beachfront during Hurricane Sandy, but there's been a long debate, hasn't there, about the wisdom of pumping millions of dollars of sand onto beaches only to see it washed away. Why does it seem to work in Ocean City?
MCGEANWell, I think there's -- a lot of it is a misunderstanding of how these projects work. Yes, we do pump sand in Ocean City. We have to pump it about once every four years. But if you look at these -- if you look at any project, you have to maintain it, and that's really what beach replenishment -- periodic replenishment is maintaining an existing project. And you're really taking the way Mother Nature normally protects the coast, and you're augmenting it. So we've found it to be very, very successful in Ocean City.
NNAMDIJoining us now by phone from Norfolk, Va. is Ron Williams, assistant city manager for the City of Norfolk. Ron Williams, thank you for joining us.
MR. RON WILLIAMSThank you. Good afternoon.
NNAMDIAnd Carl Hershner joins us from the studios of WHRO in Williamsburg, Va. Carl Hershner is director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Carl Hershner, thank you for joining us.
MR. CARL HERSHNERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIBryan Russo, back to you. Why were -- why weren't Ocean City, Norfolk and the Hampton Roads communities more heavily inundated during Hurricane Sandy? Bryan, was it luck?
RUSSOI think it -- there is a sense of luck for a lot of the coastal regions, certainly south of New York and New Jersey. I spoke with a weather expert as the storm was approaching, and he said the real turning point was going to be when the storm met that low pressure system which essentially caused the storm to take a very hard left hook into the coastline. And he told me that if the storm would have met that low pressure system an hour and a half earlier, what we're seeing in New Jersey and New York would have been the eastern shore of Maryland and perhaps even, you know, into Virginia.
RUSSOSo I think there was a sense of being spared by Mother Nature, but with that said, I know the folks here in Ocean City were very confident with the beach replenishment program and that natural levee that's created by the sand dune system. But I think what we saw in this storm in particular was a lot of flooding from the bayside, and that is much harder to prepare for because all those properties on the bayside are private residences.
RUSSOIt's not federally owned beach area. So I think that moving forward is going to be something that legislators and municipalities are going to have to look at. It's really, you know, fortifying the bayside.
NNAMDIWell, Terry, in light of what Bryan just said, if we see more traditional hurricanes hammering the coast more often, will beach replenishment and your seawall be enough to protect the city?
MCGEANWe believe so. Now, the difference here when you have the ocean flooding, you also have a considerable amount of wave energy, so it takes, you know, it takes that, again, that two-pronged approach where we need to fortify our shoreline and have beach replenishment, but we also need to have our strict building codes on the bayside. When we have bayside flooding, it tends to be more of a still water flood.
MCGEANThe key there is elevation. We require our buildings on the bayside to be built two feet higher than FEMA requires for the 100-year flood elevation, and that's a lot to allow for any wave action that you might see above the still water and also to account for future sea level rise. So as we have developed and as newer buildings come online, they're being built higher up and each year to a tougher standard. I think the importance is, you know, you recognize the threat that you're place under, and you do your best to build -- to mitigate against those threats.
NNAMDIRon Williams, Bryan Russo said earlier that partially it was luck that caused the situation with Sandy to not have been as bad as it might have. Do you agree?
WILLIAMSAbsolutely. The storm tracked going north. Yeah, obviously, we did what we didn't experience that we traditionally experience was the inundation of rain ahead of the front of the storm or the sustained winds over a period of time. So we didn't have that damage that we would typically have when a storm of comes through. We did have the flooding that we've experienced in other storms as far as the -- and the sustained tide levels, but not having that wind and rain combination ahead of time, we really dodged it this time.
NNAMDIBryan Russo, just a bit further south of Ocean City is the town of Crisfield, Md., the situation is a lot different there. Tell us about what you've been seeing in communities like Crisfield and how they're coping.
RUSSOSomerset County is traditionally and historically known as one of the poorest counties and poorest towns in Maryland. It's a historic and fishing village, once was called the seafood capital of the world. And Crisfield was absolutely devastated. Five hundred homes were flooded. Hundreds of people were displaced. You know, as of today, you know, I was in a home earlier this week with a woman who lives a little bit out of town, and her home took on about five feet of water, and it's completely gutted now.
RUSSOIt's being overrun by black mold. An estimate that she got to repair her home was to the tune of $100,000, and, you know, her and many people throughout Crisfield, they just don't have the pocket change to do it because the harsh reality is they didn't have flood insurance. So communities like Crisfield are really, you know, wavering on the ropes right now just waiting for some help. And, unfortunately, Gov. O'Malley and the Maryland delegation had, you know, put in for federal assistance for individuals, for individual homeowners, and that was denied earlier this week.
NNAMDIDoes Crisfield and towns on the coast south of Ocean City have protective measures in place, like sand replenishment or seawalls, Bryan?
RUSSOI don't believe they do in Crisfield, and people that I've spoken with down in Crisfield say that they've never experienced a storm like this ever in history. A lady that I spoke with on Main Street who just moved from Tangier Island to Crisfield to restore a historic home there said that, you know, her neighbors have told her that where she lives has never flooded at all, and there was a good two feet of water rushing into her home.
RUSSOSo people down there are completely shell-shocked, and they didn't expect it. They didn't even batten down the hatches. It's just really, you know, devastated their livelihoods.
NNAMDII'd like to get back to Tangier Island in a second, but first, Carl Hershner, I'd like to back up for a minute for a little context. Carl, can you give us an idea of what's happening to sea levels in the area that we're focusing on today and why it's happening?
HERSHNERWell, as you just heard, sea level is rising throughout the region. Along the mid-Atlantic coast, we are anticipating probably two to five or more feet of rise by the end of the century. There are three things that we understand to be primary drivers. One, of course, is the melting polar icecaps and the warming of the oceans, which cause the water to expand, so there's more water in the ocean.
HERSHNERThe second is that this entire area is sinking at varying rates, but it has significant addition to the rate of relative sea level rise that we've observed. And the third thing that we have come to understand is that circulation in the oceans I think in this case in terms of the Gulf Stream moving up along our coasts that that has influences on local levels of water. And as the current speed changes that too can contribute to in this case rising sea level locally.
NNAMDIWe're having a conversation on protecting our coastal communities and inviting you to join it by calling 800-433-8850. Do you have property that is prone to flooding? How have you handled the risk and the damage, or how would you handle the risk of living on the coast? Would you retreat, fortify your home, take your chances? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDINow, Bryan Russo, back to Tangier Island. It's just a few miles from Crisfield. It's been losing as much as 16 feet a year on some sites, but in late November, the Army Corps of Engineers and Gov. Bob McDonnell announced a project to build a $4.2 million jetty to protect the island's harbor. How crucial is that harbor?
RUSSOThey need it. It is vitally crucial for, you know, their survival and their existing community. It -- going to Tangier is kind of like going to another world. It's -- we went down there for "Coastal Connection" several months ago. We flew in there. When we touched down, there was really nobody on the runway. I mean people don't drive cars there. They ride around in golf carts, and everybody kind of knows everybody.
RUSSOThey all are in the fishing business. They either work on tugboats, so they work on fishing boats. I think there's one working restaurant. It's unlike anything else I've ever seen, but it's a community that's sinking, and it's kind of being washed away. So this assistance and this jetty is vitally important for their survival.
NNAMDIRon Williams, let's talk about Norfolk, which has been ranked second only to New Orleans among East Coast and Gulf Coast cities threatened by flooding. What about Norfolk's geography that makes it so prone to flooding?
WILLIAMSWell, if you know where we're located, southeastern corner of Virginia, we're right where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. And then Norfolk is surrounded by three sides, water. We have nearly 145 miles of shoreline from rivers and the estuaries off of the Chesapeake Bay. So we are largely susceptible to all types of flooding, not only from coastal whether it be at the bay, from a storm surge perspective or even what comes up in the rivers.
WILLIAMSBut then we also have rapid rainfall that can occur from -- and we have, you know, more heavy inundation of rainfall that, depending on tide cycle, can complicate the ability of that storm water to run off.
NNAMDICan you tell us about the long-term plans that Norfolk has or has undertaken to keep water out of your most vulnerable neighborhoods?
WILLIAMSYeah. Historically, a lot of our mitigation efforts had focused on our Chesapeake Bay shoreline, which is about seven miles long. And we've had an engineered beach established and re-nourishment projects particularly over the past 15 years. But with the intensity and the frequency of storms that have come particularly over the past decade, we've had to take a more comprehensive approach.
WILLIAMSAnd what I mean by the frequency is on the major storm events, like northeasters or hurricanes, we've had more major storms in the past decade than we had in the previous four decades. And then coupled with that, the intense rainstorms are happening more frequently where more inundation of rainfall has made us, you know, understand that we have to look at this comprehensively in all our different watersheds across the city.
WILLIAMSSo part of what we've done is establish a strategy, some of which includes what Terry touched on about zoning. But it's four-pronged approach. We have to plan. So obviously, we have to have the study and the analysis, the modeling and simulation. So we've increased our execution of tidal guides out -- in and around the city. But we have to look at preparing, more from the emergency preparedness sense.
WILLIAMSWhen you have the storm, either before or after, what do you have to do? We've increased communication, educating our residents, educating our partners, non-governmental organizations or other state and federal agencies about what we're doing or what we have. And then we have to look at the mitigation efforts. And the mitigation efforts can be not only at a residential, you know, single perspective but also mega-infrastructure projects.
WILLIAMSSimilarly, we try to communicate to our residents that that four-pronged strategy could be applied to their household as well. So everyone should be thinking about am I in a flood zone, communicating to their neighbors about what they will do in a storm, preparing for a storm or to, you know, evacuate for a storm. And then also looking at what can they, within their means, do to mitigate what damage they might have in a storm situation?
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on protecting our coastal community. Still inviting your calls, though, 800-433-8850. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. Should lawmakers be devoting more money and resources to protecting coastal communities? You can also send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We are talking about protecting our coastal communities with Bryan Russo, coastal reporter for WAMU 88.5. He's also host of "Coastal Connection" on 88.3 in Ocean City. Terry McGean is city engineer, Ocean City, Ron Williams is assistant city manager for the city of Norfolk, Va. and Carl Hershner is director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Carl, what are the projections of sea level rise for the area?
HERSHNERFor this local area, the Mid-Atlantic...
HERSHNER...the projections are anywhere from one to over seven feet with most the current trends coming together to indicate that we're on the projection for about five feet of sea level by the end of the century.
NNAMDICarl, you say that when we think about adapting to sea level rise, there are generally three strategies for coastal communities. What are they?
HERSHNERWell, the first one you've heard about, which is to manage or retreat in the face of the risk that come with sea level rise. Second one is to accommodate the problem, and this is elevating houses, basically planning to live in areas that will flood periodically. And then the third is the engineering solution, to build dikes, seawalls or flood barriers.
NNAMDIRon, quickly, how much does Norfolk spend each year to improve drainage, raised level of streets and raised homes?
WILLIAMSApproximately $7 million of just city funds in our capital improvement program.
NNAMDIWas Hurricane Sandy a real test of your efforts so far?
WILLIAMSIt was, actually mostly from the technology side where we -- where our implementation of technologies and having a real-time data at our pump stations and our title guides and how to use that, how to communicate, that -- yeah, that definitely paid dividends so that we could communicate to residents what going on or so we could also deploy resources out there to make sure that we're presenting people from driving through flooded areas, for example.
NNAMDITerry McGean, how does Norfolk's figure compared to Ocean City's?
MCGEANWell, they're a little bit larger than us. What we do is each year, the state of Maryland, Worcester County and the town of Ocean City placed $2 million into a fund, and that fund is used for repair and maintenance of our beach and then the local cost share for the periodic renourishments. In addition, we have a policy for our street projects. We try -- whenever we do one, we try to raise it up as much as we can.
MCGEANA lot of times, we are constrained by the adjacent property owners because they need to drain into those streets, so we can't raise the street up any higher than the adjacent property. But we always, as we do on normal street maintenance, try to raise those up. And that, of course, our big beach replenishment, we spent -- the state city, Worcester County and the federal government, we spend about $100 million on that project since it was initiated in the mid-'80s.
MCGEANA Corps of Engineers estimates that the project has prevented over $600 million in damages in the town of Ocean City. So we feel that project is a huge success, and we're very committed to continue to fund it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We'll start with Roger in Washington, D.C. Roger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROGERHey, I've lived in the area all my life and always vacation to Ocean City. And something that I've noticed recently and kind of associating it with the beach replenishment program, I've noticed cliffing at the shoreline, and sometimes it's been as much as three feet. And I was wondering if it was related to the replenishment program. And if so, what does it tell us? If not, also, what does it tell us? But I'll take my reply off the air.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Terry McGean, care to respond?
MCGEANI had a little difficult time hearing the question.
NNAMDIHe said he's noticed cliffing now that he goes to Ocean City, and he's wondering if the cliffing that he's noticed is related to beach replenishment.
MCGEANIt -- sometimes, that can be -- we use a little bit larger, heavier grain of sand in beach replenishment because it will stay up on the beach longer than a very fine grain of sand. So at times, you will -- particularly right after we do a replenishment project, you'll see a little bit more of a steeper shoreline than you would naturally. Now, typically, what happens is about a year after the initial replenishment, you'll see a lot of those effects go away as the pumped sand begins to mix more with the sand. It's typically there.
MCGEANWe also build the beach at a steeper slope because it's very expensive to actually pump sand underwater. So what they'll do when they build the beach is they'll build it at a little steeper slope. And then in the winter time, when we get our winter profile, then that beach slope will begin to shallow out. So what he may be seeing may well be related to beach replenishment, and again, it's generally a temporary condition.
NNAMDIOn to Matt in Alexandria, Va. Matt, your turn.
MATTHey, Kojo, I've been studying in school the National Flood Insurance Program, and I've found a really interesting coalition of groups, some conservative, small government groups and some or liberal environmental groups that are advocating for a more risk-based flood insurance program. And currently, the federal government subsidized quite a bit the cost of flood insurance.
MATTAnd each of these groups feel that it's a good solution to cut down on some of the costs that comes along with flooding. It's smartersafer.org, and I was wondering if any of your participants have heard of that coalition and what the thoughts are about a more risk-based flood insurance.
NNAMDIRisk-based flood insurance, I'll put it both to you, Bryan Russo, and then to Ron Williams. Bryan, have you heard anything about that?
RUSSOI have not. I was very surprised to find out how few people here on the coast actually have flood insurance. And even people that have flood insurance, once they read between the lines and checked the fine print of it, that they, you know, in a storm like Sandy, for instance, I was speaking to a gentleman in Crisfield who actually had flood insurance and he said that his policy wasn't covering him because of the nature of the storm, the kind of act of God, you know, the sort of situation that Sandy was.
RUSSOSo I think a lot of people, even if they have flood insurance, they really need to look at their policy and find out what is actually covered as we move forward in storms like Sandy become more proficient and prolific.
NNAMDIMatt -- and it's my understanding when you say risk-based insurance, that the cost of insurance would be higher, the greater the likelihood of flooding, correct?
MATTThat's correct. If it's based on a flood map, what we're currently dealing with is it'd be almost -- it wouldn't be physically responsible to live in an area that was so expensive. And so in order to make up for that, the federal government subsidizes that cost. But if those costs were actual to the risk, then people might choose to live somewhere else.
NNAMDIRon Williams, have you heard about that at all?
WILLIAMSYes, you know, and the reality to that, I think, are an extreme challenge with population shifts. We already have a significant majority. The population of the United States along -- in costal communities and with the population increasing and shifting to those communities, you know, I think the challenge is, do you just look at it trying to keep the flood insurance program solvent?
WILLIAMSOr do you also had to look at this comprehensively and understand that, you know, part of the focus should be on the mitigation efforts to make sure that we decrease the amount of damage to properties and can have a more reasonable rate for homeowners?
NNAMDIMatt, thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Ken Wilcox who is on North Beach, Md. Ken Wilcox, you are a councilmember on the Western Shore, correct?
MR. KEN WILCOXYes, I am. And thank you for having me on. And...
WILCOX...I just want to add for -- to move a little bit closer and a little bit smaller to D.C., we -- North Beaches in Calvert County on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and we suffer from many things that Norfolk and the other ones do but just in a smaller scale. If you remember a couple of years back when Irene hit, our particular town was very devastated. We lost our boardwalk, lost a significant number of homes. We were underwater for a long period of time -- us.
WILCOXAnd so we've, you know, we're trying every strategy which was mentioned. We're putting up bulwarks. We -- we're trying with the Corp of Engineers is -- there is our wetlands that are above us, and we're trying to reduce the amount of just tidal action that happens that floods our town. But we're in a very small scale. I mean, I can -- what we've spent is maybe just a couple of million dollars but we're a town of 1,900 people.
WILCOXSo -- and we're looking at sea rises, and I'm looking here at the NOAH website on tides and currents that show that over the 100 years, we're -- ours will go up not as much as others but by 14 inches. And 14 inches increase on the bayside for our town, I mean, we're seeing, you know, a third of our town disappear just because we're right on the bay. And by our name of North Beach -- and I know our mayor. And it's been in the Post in the past couple of years -- is the number of beaches on the Western Shore are diminishing.
MATTI mean, there aren't many of us left. And it's the reality in which we're all, you know, trying to address, and we're trying to save as much as we can. But like with the other towns, even, you know, up close here in D.C., you know, we suffer the same.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with Jean Wilcox. I don't know if -- Terry McGean, you care to comment on that?
MCGEANIt's a, you know, I think the very -- he's -- what he's done is the very first step and that is recognizing that you have a problem. And if you have enlist the help of the Corps of Engineers and, again, as the others have said, it's not a single solution. It's a combination of solutions to deal with this threat. It's the engineering solutions. It's the zoning and the building code solutions, retraining out if you have that capability. But I think you can't just say, we're just going to do this one particular thing and solve the problem. You need to look at it from all those different angles.
NNAMDIKen Wilcox, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we should continue to rebuild our coastal communities after destruction, or should there be limits, in your opinion? 800-433-8850. You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Carl Hershner, this year, Norfolk and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science undertook a study of sea level rise in our area. When is that study due to be completed?
HERSHNERIt's due for delivery tot he General Assembly at the convening of their session in January of next year.
NNAMDIRon Williams, what does Norfolk's hope when the study is released?
WILLIAMSWell, we hope that there'll be, one, an acceptance of the understanding of what we have just been talking about, what we've been dealing with, you know, what we have with our relative sea-level rise and the frequency of storm and then what are the strategies to deal with that. You know, we hope that at the state level and even at the federal level, we need to continue to elevate to make sure that we're looking for prevention and mitigation versus constantly dealing with aftermath.
NNAMDICarl Hershner, are you in a position to give us a preview of any of the findings of this study yet?
HERSHNERYes. I think so 'cause they're largely not a surprise. Basically, what we have done is look at the risk that exist throughout coastal Virginia, documented that the observed trends certainly confirm the worst fears, if you will, of Norfolk and some of the other localities that have been experiencing increasing issues with flooding. And then what we have been able to do in surveying actives across the nation and around the world is summarize some of the adaptation strategies that are available for localities.
HERSHNERAnd the unfortunate circumstance is that, two things, one, the lead time for a lot of the effective planning and/or engineering solutions is fairly significant. And so kicking the can down the road by waiting for another decade or for the problem to get even worse will only aggravate the cost long term. And the other or the other finding is that the this -- the solutions are not going to be cheap, and they're not going to be universal, that is, not everyone can do the same thing.
HERSHNERNorfolk is already looking at multiple strategies just like Ocean City has, and it's going to be critical as the commonwealth looks at localities from a highly developed urban centers to the more rural communities like the fishing community on Tangier that we consider and plan for alternative methods of dealing with the risk that we are quite certain will continue to grow.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. We're talking about protected our costal communities. Should lawmakers be devoting more money and resources to protecting coastal communities? Should we continue to rebuild our coastal communities after destruction or should there be limits? What do you think? 800-433-8850. Here is Gene in Annapolis, Md. Gene, your turn.
GENEHi. I'm a retired city planner who was involved in disaster planning during the '80s. And what the federal government knew then and which I think probably is still true today and which isn't mentioned enough is that each year, every year in the United States, 25 to 50 percent of the flood damage that occurs in the United State occurs outside the FEMA 100-year floodplain lines.
GENEAnd that's why people need to buy flood insurance because when they get told by these -- when they have the assumption that says, oh, we never had a flood or the real estate person says you're outside the floodplain line, that's when you should be buying it, and it should be cheaper. The point that was raised earlier while I was waiting about the risk-based cost of flood insurance, which would make it more expensive, is the problem is that people want compassion.
GENEAnd so when you make flood insurance really in the highest risk areas commensurate with the risk, no one can afford it, and that's why there's a subsidy. And that -- and since there are many disasters around the country -- not just flooding, but tornadoes in the Midwest, tornadoes even in this part of the country -- that's why you have a community approach which says we're going to cross-subsidize things because no one can afford to pay for everything all the time unless you share those costs around the country.
NNAMDIWell, Allan sent us an email, Jean, and Allan's email -- Allan is in Markham, Va. Allan writes, "The government should stop providing low insurance cost in vulnerable -- low-cost insurance in vulnerable areas." Full stop. "By doing so, the government pays twice: one, through the subsidies to flood programs, and, two, by bailing out those same areas after the disaster. The flood programs promote bad behavior all around." What do you say, Jean?
GENEThat's -- I say that the point there is that, unfortunately, people want to move back in after they've been flooded out, and that's where we need to buy the properties out. Rapid City, South Dakota, which was -- that spent -- federal government spent about 50 million bucks to buy all the land out along the river when it flooded back in the '70s, it was considered a great success. But it was so successful they said, we're never going to do it again, because what you did was you bought out the floodplain, made it into a park.
GENEAnd people have this emotional need to be near those shores, and so you have the dilemma of people want emotionally to move back in. That's what you're seeing all over the area with Sandy in New York City and New Jersey. People who got wiped out still want to rebuild it, and that's the problem. It's that emotional need to rebuild and go back in there rather than the general public need to say, no, we've got to not build in sensitive areas. Thank you.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. You're more than welcome, Jean. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on protecting our coastal communities. Still inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have property that is prone to flooding? How have you handled the risk and the damage? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about protecting our coastal communities with Carl Hershner, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at William & Mary Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Ron Williams is assistant city manager for the city of Norfolk, Va. Bryan Russo is coastal reporter for WAMU. He's also host of "Coastal Connection" on 88.3 in Ocean City. And Terry McGean is city engineer for Ocean City.
NNAMDIBryan Russo, our last caller was talking about people wanting to go back to their homes or to build again. Ocean City is pretty much built to capacity. How are residents altering or protecting older buildings, many of which have been passed down from one generation to another?
RUSSOWell, I think people are -- you know, as the price of living in Ocean City has gone up over the years with the real estate boom and whatnot, people were starting to move off the island a little bit into West Ocean City, into Berlin, you know, a little bit farther inland. But, you know, there are some older places in Ocean City that are probably facing in the next few years, whether it be storm-related or just, you know, from a capitalist point of view, of just staying current in the market.
RUSSOThey're going to need to renovate, and that's going to be a harsh reality for many of them, is that they need to invest in their own properties to stay, you know, viable in today's market of what people want when they come on vacation. Some of the older hotels or even the older beach cottages, you know, they might not survive. Seawall or not, or beach replenishment or not, they just might not make it.
NNAMDIRon, Norfolk has gotten some pretty sobering estimates of what it will take to upgrade its coastal defenses. I've read up to $1 billion. How are you evaluating these quotes as you move forward?
WILLIAMSWell, some of them, we know their short-term mitigation efforts that we can undertake. Others, we know that we have to plan over several decades. The larger numbers, for example, in the $700 million range, is essentially the replacement of our stormwater infrastructure. We're a city that's been here nearly 400 years. Some of our infrastructure was done in a time maybe when you didn't build to urban standards, but you have suburban standards or even rural. And so we're having to replace that infrastructure.
WILLIAMSBut if I -- the reason we have to do that is really about -- when you understand that Norfolk's economy is tied to the water. And so the return to the city is going to happen when and if we do have damage because we have the world's largest navy base, and we have one of the largest ports on the East Coast. And so the ability to move those goods in and out of that port or the ability to get those sailors to the ship is essentially, you know, tied to Norfolk's fabric.
WILLIAMSAnd so you're always going to have residents that return, and so therefore we have to make the decision to put these mitigation projects into place. But similar to what some of the discussion was before, we, you know, socioeconomically, we're one of the most fiscally strained cities in the commonwealth.
WILLIAMSAnd our ability to generate the revenues to pay for those projects, you know, cannot completely be borne by the residents of Norfolk, especially with supporting the infrastructure and the operations of that port and the naval station here. So we do need the assistance of the state and the federal government to assist in that.
NNAMDIHere is Leslie in Washington, D.C. Leslie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LESLIEThanks, Kojo. What I'd like to know is what we've learned from the Dutch since they've been studying this problem and dealing -- been dealing with it very effectively for centuries.
NNAMDIRon, can you talk about the Dutch company Fugro, which has offices in Norfolk? And that brings to mind, for people like Leslie and yours truly, the massive sea gates that the Netherlands has built to protect itself from flooding. Would a project like that be feasible for Norfolk, or, as Leslie asked, what have we learned from the Dutch?
WILLIAMSWell, two things. One, yes, Fugro has the location here in Norfolk, and they are Netherlands-based. And so their expertise has been very beneficial as we've given them, you know, a scope of work to do to look at what mitigation efforts we should have, particularly from the coastal flooding perspective. But secondly, because of that relationship, we have established a -- with -- because of the relationship with Fugro, we've established a relationship with the Dutch Embassy, which basically has a staff that assist us based out of Washington, D.C., with an understanding of what have they done.
WILLIAMSAnd their philosophy is living with the sea. You know, the Netherlands are essentially below sea level, and so they've been able to figure it out. And we're working with them and getting their expertise and advice on what should we be looking at beyond what we had traditionally looked at in decades past. So we're very much at the, you know, at that turning point of trying to understand how can we combine different projects.
WILLIAMSFor example, do you, rather than just a floodwall, do you do a floodwall that also has the ability to carry a highway, for example? So that expertise and that relationship has proven fruitful so far, at least in understanding and analysis.
NNAMDII was born in a country -- Guyana, South America -- where the Dutch built a seawall along the entire coastline of the country. And, Terry, Ocean City, and, Ron, Norfolk have seawalls that are decades old. First you, Terry, is it tall enough to withstand the kind of sea level rise that we've been talking about?
MCGEANThe sea level that -- the seawall that was built along the boardwalk was constructed, in fact, the entire beach replenishment project, which the seawall is a part of when it was constructed, did take into account sea level rise. I think what's important, and it was touched on earlier, is the seawall is not a stand alone either. The seawall requires the beach in front of it.
MCGEANIf you would just build the seawall and not done beach replenishment, the seawall will actually accelerate erosion because you will get increased scour at the base of the seawall. And really, the state-of-the-art with a lot of the shoreline protection projects are what we think of as the hybrid project. Whether you're doing a breakwater and you're going to want to renourish the beach in front -- behind the breakwater, a lot of these -- a lot of where they're moving to in terms of shore protection are more of these hybrid projects.
NNAMDIRon, the seawall in Norfolk.
WILLIAMSOur seawall is the southern portion of the city. It's right at our downtown. So it's on the Elizabeth River, one of those inland tributaries. I believe that's about $5 million in 1970 when that was first built. Obviously, the hundreds of millions of dollars that had been invested in the downtown Norfolk that, you know, the return on that investment has been great. As far as what the future holds, that's part of an analysis that we're doing right now in understanding to make sure that that or the improvements to that that we're working with the Army Corps on that we're making sure that we address that.
NNAMDIWhich makes me call on Carl Hershner for his opinion on the flood walls in both cities. Carl.
HERSHNERWell, it's certainly an interim solution. The thing that's interesting about the Dutch is that their motivation, if anything, is far greater than any of us here in the U.S. for building and maintaining effective structures. And, in fact, they build the standards which far exceed what we have done historically in this area either -- in either of the two cities you've talked about or in other areas like New Orleans, where in the Netherlands, they plan for the one in 1,000 year or one in 10,000-year storm.
HERSHNERHere, we tend to think more in the one in 100-year storm. And so we will probably have to begin thinking of a somewhat larger structure to provide continuous or more effective protection in the future. But the real risk with seawalls is that they provide a protection that is not always fully appreciated in the inland portions. So put up a seawall and then people want to develop behind it.
HERSHNERAnd unless you have adequately forecast the risks that those communities will experience or might suffer, you can actually aggravate the long-term damages that will occur. That hasn't happened in either of the two cities on the show today. And the seawalls that they currently have seem to be adequate for at least the immediate future. But it's the long-term planning that you have heard both groups talk about that's now causing them to look more carefully at what the Netherlands has done.
NNAMDITerry and Ron, we've seen several headlines after Hurricane Sandy encouraging retreat from our coastlines. How does retreat enter into your city planning to mitigate flooding? First you, Ron.
WILLIAMSWe do take into account, particularly in our planning perspective, that there may need to be selective property acquisition. As far as outright retreats of whole streets or neighborhoods or districts, we're not taking that into account right now because we do believe that there are either mitigation efforts, whether it be citywide or individually, that can, you know, adopt that living with the same philosophy that the Netherlands have. But it is something that we're considering more than ever, but it's not something that we're proponents for right now.
NNAMDIBefore you respond, Terry McGean, give a listen to Bob in Alexandria, Va. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, Bob just dropped off. Well, Terry, go ahead.
NNAMDIBob was advocating simply that people move.
MCGEANAnd as long as I've -- I have been the city engineer for Ocean City, we've heard that argument. You know, Ocean City is a very robust, important town. We don't hear people -- when the earthquake hit Northridge, Calif., we didn't hear people saying, well, you should retreat from Northridge. I don't think we're going to hear people saying, you should retreat from New York City, you know, we contributing considerable value to both the state and federal economy.
MCGEANI think if there's a recognition -- when we talk about the Dutch, there's a recognition to them of the importance of where they're building. The Dutch don't retreat. The Dutch commit the resources to sustain their country. So...
NNAMDIAnd that's what you're advocating. Bryan Russo, we get it in another way in an email from Leslie, who writes, "I live in St. Michaels. What's the likelihood of the state prioritizing future infrastructure funding for coastal communities destined for inundation? If St. Michaels or Crisfield wants funding for a new wastewater treatment plant or a high school, will they be turned down, or will they be told to build it inland?
NNAMDI"For that matter, should some of these communities consider picking themselves up and moving inland to higher ground?" Bryan, what do you hear from residents along the coast about how Hurricane Sandy impacted their thinking about living there? Are residents digging in or pondering retreating?
RUSSOI hear a couple different things, you know, we've talked a bunch in this conversation about 100-year storm or 1,000-year storm. I spoke with a gentleman in Crisfield, and he said, you know, and he's facing a $100,000-plus of, you know, repair damage just to get back into his home. And he said, you know, this is a storm that I've never seen before, and it seems like these storms are coming every few years or every year. So he's -- him and his family are really trying to decide whether or not they want to stay.
RUSSOAnd if, you know, as more and more people get on board with climate change and global warming and, you know, the strengthening of these massive super storms, I think a lot of people are really going to sit down at the kitchen table and think long and hard about whether or not they want to retreat back from the coastline.
RUSSOAs for the email about, you know, municipalities and legislators wanting to fortify the coastlines a bit, I know, you know, some of the legislators I spoke with this week -- Sen. Jim Mathias here in -- on -- in 38B Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset, Sen. Barbara Mikulski. She's been a huge proponent of beach replenishment and fortifying our coastline for many, many years. I know that there is interest.
RUSSOBut, you know, as we saw in Crisfield, that same delegation wanted to get individual assistance from FEMA for the people in Crisfield whose, you know, town has been devastated and they were turned down. So I think there is a lot of uncertainty moving forward about not only what Mother Nature is going to throw at us but also how do people prepare for that. So I think it's going to be part of a very interesting narrative moving forward about, you know, the future of our coastlines.
NNAMDICarl Hershner, we only have about a minute left. But Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base, and you have ports, ship-building yards and an Air Force base nearby. Has the military been fairly proactive about adapting its facilities to sea-level changes?
HERSHNERThey have. They have invested quite a bit of effort in the technical analysis and assessment of what their options are to maintain those facilities. So...
NNAMDIHave they been sharing that knowledge with you, Ron Williams?
WILLIAMSYes, they have. We have an experts advisory group that they're part of.
NNAMDIOK. And I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Ron Williams is assistant city manager for the city of Norfolk, Va. Ron, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDICarl Hershner is director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Carl Hershner, thank you for joining us.
HERSHNERThank you for having me.
NNAMDITerry McGean is city engineer for Ocean City, Md. Terry McGean, thank you.
MCGEANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Bryan Russo is our coastal reporter here with WAMU 88.5. He's also host of "Coastal Connection" on 88.3 in Ocean City. Bryan, always a pleasure.
RUSSOThank you, Kojo. Have good one.
NNAMDIYou, too. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Mohsin Hamid explores the personal and political in this collection of essays about a dual identity as a Pakistani who's spent his life between the West and the East.
Kojo chats with filmmaker Kirby Dick, whose latest work explores how American colleges and universities are struggling to combat sexual assaults on their campuses.
Funding authority for the Department of Homeland Security is set to run out at midnight on Friday. As the Senate moves closer to approving a "clean" funding bill and the House confronts Friday's deadline, we consider the implications of a DHS shutdown and the possible political fallout for both parties.