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Pricey seawall in Virginia won't address key impacts of climate change, critics fear


Many coastal communities are grappling with the looming impacts of climate change. Norfolk, Va. is one of the cities most at risk from sea level rise. It's now working on a multibillion-dollar floodwall to protect itself. But as WHRO's Katherine Hafner reports, critics worry the expensive project won't address key impacts of climate change and won't protect everyone equally.

KATHERINE HAFNER, BYLINE: Kim Sudderth has lived in the Berkeley area in Norfolk for five years.

KIM SUDDERTH: I love this neighborhood. I truly do.

HAFNER: Many homes in the historically Black neighborhood date back more than a century. Sudderth loves the strong sense of history and community, but there's a downside. Her street floods just about every time it rains, including recently.

SUDDERTH: This is the corner. You see it's still wet from Monday. And it just floods really high. On rainy days, you might lose your car.

HAFNER: Lose your car because it might get swamped by a flash flood. That happens all over Norfolk during rainstorms or even just high tide. Sudderth says you kind of get used to all that water.

SUDDERTH: It's kind of a way of life.

HAFNER: Not a way of life she wants. And climate change is only making that worse. Sea levels are rising faster in Norfolk than anywhere else on the East Coast. Now, the city is planning a massive floodwall project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It includes tide gates, levees and more and will cost more than $2.5 billion. But here's the problem - that huge new plan won't protect against flooding Norfolk sees all the time from rain and high tides. Instead, it's designed to protect against a hurricane or catastrophic storm. Local environmentalist Skip Stiles says it's foolish to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a floodwall that won't fix most floods.

SKIP STILES: I'm someone who lives in Norfolk and has to deal with flooding. And if I, as a taxpayer in Norfolk, are going to be paying the $900 million local and state share of this, I want protection from flooding.

HAFNER: Stiles recently retired as longtime head of the Norfolk nonprofit Wetlands Watch. He and other critics worry the project is too focused on one-off storms and not enough on the daily growing impacts of climate change. But Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan says just one massive storm could devastate the city.

ANDRIA MCCLELLAN: Every hurricane season that comes through, I worry that this is going to be the one.

HAFNER: She says Norfolk now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deal with that threat. Congress recently approved $400 million for the floodwall.

MCCLELLAN: These projects take decades long to complete. If we don't start now, we're never going to be ready.

HAFNER: Norfolk's floodwall project is just one of many the Army Corps proposed after Hurricane Sandy tore through the East Coast in 2012. Michelle Hamor is with the Corps' Norfolk District. She says the agency's focus isn't to stop all flooding - it's to prevent the kind of severe damage that Sandy caused, as calculated in dollars.

MICHELLE HAMOR: The difference between what would have been flooded and what is now not flooded is what we call benefits. It's the damage reduced by the measures that are implemented.

HAFNER: In other words, the more money a project could save from storm damage, the more it's worth doing. But some residents worry the Norfolk project won't even protect them from major storms. In the Army Corps' original plan, the floodwall did not reach several majority-Black and lower-income neighborhoods. That includes Kim Sudderth's home in Berkeley. She says these communities were historically discriminated against, and now it feels like history is repeating itself.

SUDDERTH: It struck me, like, oh, my God, it's happening again. And this time it's happening to me. It's 2023 (laughter), and it's still happening.

HAFNER: Sudderth sits on the city's planning commission. She and other residents pushed back, and Norfolk and the Army Corps now say they're trying to change their plans. But this problem isn't unique to Norfolk. Rob Young with Western Carolina University studies how coastal communities are dealing with climate change. He says the way the Army Corps approaches these projects is a big problem. Their formula for deciding what to protect is largely based on property values.

ROB YOUNG: If your real estate is not worth a lot of money, then the Corps can't protect you. It's as if the only thing we value as Americans when we're spending federal money is value.

HAFNER: That approach can also steer the Corps toward a focus on big disasters. Instead, Young says officials should step back and consider all the climate impacts, including things like everyday flooding. Work on the floodwall project could start as early as next year and will take at least a decade to finish.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Hafner in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katherine Hafner

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