When floodwaters poured into Holly Furlong’s Virginia Beach home in October, she ripped out electrical cords and rushed her four children upstairs. They spent the next two days without power, building blanket forts while anxiously waiting for sewage-tainted waters to recede.
Nearly two months later, Furlong, 34, said she’s being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It changes your sense of security,” she said of the flooding that inundated 1,400 homes and business in Virginia Beach after weeks of rain. “It kind of bursts your optimistic bubble for life. Things that didn’t seem possible, because they were so bad, seem possible.”
In a region under siege from rising sea levels, the heavy rains brought flood worries to a new level. Instead of the storm surge many fear, the rain overwhelmed drainage systems in neighborhoods miles from the Atlantic Ocean and the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Homes that never flooded before were overrun with two or three feet of water.
Experts warn that flooding will likely increase in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region, where Virginia Beach and six other cities are clustered on or near the state’s low-lying coast. The land is sinking and the sea is rising at the highest rate on the East Coast, they say. Global warming threatens to draw more intense rain storms up the Eastern Seaboard.
Fears are growing that this historically prime location for military installations threatens livelihoods as much as it sustains them.
The Atlantic meets the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay here along with the confluence of three rivers. The world’s largest naval base sits in Norfolk, nearby. A commercial port, ship builders and a railroad help fuel the economy.
But the cities were built on low coastal plains and filled-in creek beds. Water drains slowly into a jagged latticework of tidal rivers and tributaries.
The Center for Sea Level Rise at Old Dominion University in Virginia said the region’s population of 1.7 million is the country’s second most vulnerable to sea-level rise, facing a potential increase of five feet by century’s end.
A study released this month by William & Mary Law School said a major storm surge could cause $100 million in damage if nothing is done to counter sea-level rise by 2060.
Robert Tuleya, a hurricane expert at the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, said there’s reason to worry about more rain-induced floods.
“There’s pretty good evidence … that this will happen more often, attributable to global warming,” said Tuleya. But he cautioned it’s hard to blame global warming for any one storm.
Flooding is common enough that 280 homes over the years have filed multiple flood damage claims, noted Rich Sobota, an insurance specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The latest flooding followed weeks of rain after multiple storms stalled off the coast, with Hurricane Matthew’s remnants serving as the tipping point. All told, it was the area’s second wettest 35-day stretch in recorded history, said Larry Brown, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Aid is now flowing after President Barack Obama’s disaster declarations for the seven cities, including Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake. More than 2,700 people so far have gotten more than $5 million, much of it for hotel rooms. Many are applying for federal low-interest loans to rebuild.
The region’s cities already were focused on various flood-protection projects. Now the disaster has brought renewed urgency to the debates over their cost and priority. On Nov. 8, Virginia Beach voted down a referendum for a light rail system, with opponents calling for “drains, not trains.”
Erin Sutton, Virginia Beach’s deputy emergency management coordinator, said the city is prioritizing projects. But she said easy solutions are elusive in a region plagued by rising tides, high water tables and low elevation.
“I don’t know if there is any one solution that would have kept our neighborhoods from flooding after this many weeks of rain,” she said.
Jim Redick, Norfolk’s director of emergency management and response, said: “If we did everything we wanted to do, it would cost over $1 billion.”
Meanwhile, an increasing number of residents are reckoning with the reality of living here.
The flooding struck the home of Jason Meier, 39, while he was on the Persian Gulf with the U.S. Navy. Able to fly home to Virginia Beach to help his wife and two daughters cope, he could be called back before repairs are finished.
“I’m not a big proponent of global warming, but something is happening here,” said Meier, who plans to eventually move away. “When the rain does come, there’s nowhere for the water to go.”
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