This story was co-published with The Weather Channel.
NORFOLK, Virginia—The one-story brick firehouse at Naval Station Norfolk sits pinched between a tidal inlet and Willoughby Bay. The station houses the first responders to any emergency at the neighboring airfield. Yet when a big storm hits or the tides surge, the land surrounding it floods. Even on a sunny day this spring, with the tide out, the field beside the firehouse was filled with water.
“It’s not supposed to be a pond,” said Joe Bouchard, a retired captain and former base commander. “It is now.”
Naval Station Norfolk, home to the Atlantic Fleet, floods not just in heavy rains or during hurricanes. It floods when the sun is shining, too, if the tide is high or the winds are right. It floods all the time.
“It is an impediment to the base accomplishing its mission,” Bouchard said.
Once or twice a month, seawater subsumes steam lines that run along the bottom of the piers where the fleet’s ships are moored. It bubbles up through storm drains and closes roads. “It can actually shut down operations, or make it very difficult for people to get around,” Bouchard said.
Climate change poses an immediate threat to Norfolk. The seas are rising at twice the global average here, due to ocean currents and geology. Yet while the region is home to the densest collection of military facilities in the nation, the Pentagon has barely begun the hard work of adaptation. A detailed study in 2014 by the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center identified about 1.5 feet of sea level rise as a “tipping point” for the base that would dramatically increase the risk of serious damage to infrastructure. But there is no plan to address this level of rise, which scientists expect within a few decades.
The city of Norfolk, which surrounds the base, is also under siege. Sections of the main road that leads to the base become impassable several times a year. Some residents check tide charts before leaving for work or parking their cars for the night.
“These guys are in a whole heap ton of trouble,” said retired Rear Adm. David Titley. Before he joined Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, Titley served as the Navy’s oceanographer and navigator and led its Climate Change Task Force. “I think Norfolk is, in the long term, fighting for its existence, its very existence,” Titley said. “And this is the part of climate change that I don’t think most Americans have really come to grips with—that virtually every coastal city is in a fight for its existence. They just don’t know it yet.”
While Norfolk is particularly vulnerable, rising seas are threatening hundreds of other U.S. military bases around the world. Now, under a president who has said he will pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and has begun reversing much of the federal government’s effort to address the problem, it seems doubtful the military will begin new adaptation work. The Pentagon, which wove consideration of climate change into nearly every aspect of its operations under President Barack Obama, declined to discuss the topic for this article.
Naval Station Norfolk, which sprawls over the northwestern corner of its namesake city, was established 100 years ago on the former site of the Jamestown Exposition, at a time when the water was a foot and a half lower. It’s the largest of 18 major military sites in the region, known as Hampton Roads, which is home to 1.7 million people.
The area is pancake flat, and much of the base sits on landfill that’s compressing, creating dips in the road here and there. Parts of the facility lie close to sea level, and many of the stormwater outfalls are covered by the tides.
Driving around the base in a white Lexus sedan on a bright day, Bouchard turned off the road to examine a flood gate on a tidal creek that bisects the facility. The gate is better than nothing, he said, but it creates a dilemma for engineers during storms: The choices are to shut it and let the creek swell because rainwater has nowhere to go, or leave it open and allow the sea to surge in. “We just did Band-Aid fixes,” he said, referring to the gate and other stopgap measures.
Since retiring from the Navy in 2003, Bouchard has become an evangelist for adapting the area to sea level rise. He worked on an intergovernmental pilot project initiated by the Obama administration, and served briefly in the Virginia state legislature.
As he toured the base, Bouchard could hardly finish a sentence without being distracted by another site prone to flooding—the road that leads to an electronics facility full of navigation equipment for the runway, ammunition depots tucked away in dense woods, parking lots along the piers. “This area floods,” he said, pointing across a roughly kept field abutting officers’ housing. “It floods right up to the houses.”
Sea levels are rising everywhere, but Norfolk has it worse. The land, pushed up by glaciers to the north thousands of years ago, is now sinking as much as an inch-and-a-half per decade. Scientists also believe that a slowing Gulf Stream is causing seas to rise faster along the Mid-Atlantic coast. High tides at the Sewell Point gauge, off the base, have been inching ever closer to the so-called “nuisance flood” level, where many roads and yards become inundated. The hourly water level chart shows the two may not be far off from meeting on a daily basis.
A 2014 Defense Department study determined that “several critical systems” at the base were “likely to be incapacitated” if the sea rose more than 3 feet. Even half that would represent a “tipping point” after which “the probabilities of damage to infrastructure and losses in mission performance increased dramatically.” A 2013 state-commissioned report projected 1.5 feet of rise within 20 to 50 years.
The Union of Concerned Scientists did its own analysis and determined that with sea level rise of just 1.4 feet, the base’s low-lying areas would flood about 280 times each year, spending 10 percent of the time underwater.
To avoid catastrophe, Bouchard said, the base needs a complete overhaul. “The list is endless,” he said. “The electrical systems, telecommunications, everything is vulnerable.”
In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrote in the department’s climate change adaptation roadmap that “we are beginning work to address a projected sea-level rise of 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years” in Hampton Roads. But if you ask the Navy today, it seems there’s little work actually underway.
“There are no funded projects specifically addressing sea level rise,” said Capt. Dean VanderLey, head of engineering for much of the Navy’s East Coast facilities. VanderLey’s carefully crafted phrase reflects the fact that while the Navy has incorporated climate adaptation into planning and operations, it rarely initiates construction primarily for that purpose.
Behind VanderLey as he spoke, for example, stretched one of four double-decker piers the Navy has built over the past 15 years. While the new design raised utility lines out of the flood zone, they were erected not to adapt to rising seas but because the old piers needed replacement. VanderLey’s team accounts for rising seas when it designs new buildings or refurbishes old ones, lifting generators out of basements, for example, or building new facilities above the floodplain. In January, the Navy published a climate change adaptation handbook to aid these efforts with detailed guidelines. The Navy is also in the midst of a Joint Land Use Study with surrounding communities examining how sea level rise may affect the area.
The question is whether this as-you-fix-it method is enough. Replacement of the piers halted after automatic spending cuts went into effect in 2013. While Donald Trump has proposed tens of billions of dollars in new military spending for next year, VanderLey said he doesn’t expect money for new piers, which cost $150 million to $200 million each, for at least a few years.
“They’re going to have to build seawalls all around the base,” Bouchard said. “They’re going to have to rebuild the drainage system. They’ll need to finish the piers.” He guessed that work would take a decade and cost at least $1 billion—finishing the piers alone could flirt with that figure. But VanderLey, Bouchard, and several other retired Navy officers told InsideClimate News there is no specific plan to begin this work. “They haven’t had any money to spend, so in terms of action, no, not much in the way of action,” Bouchard said.
Rear Adm. Ann Phillips, who retired in 2014 and has continued to work on the issue, said Navy officials are trying to keep a low profile. “I think they’re afraid they’ll be prohibited from doing something if they directly tie it to sea level rise or climate change,” she said. “They’re terrified it will be defunded.”
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J. Pat Rios, who held VanderLey’s position until retiring last year, said the Navy is beginning to address the threat. “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. We are assuming some risks, but we all take risks every day,” he said. While he thinks the risk is acceptable for now, it would only take one hurricane to change the calculus. “That storm could come some day in the future and could cause magnified damage, and then we would be filled with a lot of regrets with the risks that we took.”
About Face on Climate
In 2008, Congress asked the Defense Department to assess its climate risks, prompting the Pentagon to include the issue in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. In the ensuing years, President Obama issued several executive orders and memoranda that further entrenched consideration of climate change into nearly every aspect of the department’s operations, from planning and deployment to facilities maintenance and construction.
As early as 2008, the military identified 30 facilities that were experiencing “increased risk” from sea level rise. More recently, it’s been assessing the threat to each of its more than 7,000 bases and other sites worldwide. Last year, the department’s environmental research program published a technical assessment that presented sea level rise scenarios for 1,774 military sites.
“We can no longer just assume that the basic infrastructure that supports our military and has for centuries is going to be there in the future,” said retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, who was assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment under Obama.
Many of the department’s findings are classified, but the Union of Concerned Scientists last year assessed the impacts of sea level rise on 18 military facilities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It considered two scenarios—one that assumed a rise of 3.7 feet by 2100 and another with 6.3 feet—and determined that in both cases all but two of the facilities would suffer more than 100 floods per year in low-lying areas by 2050. By 2100, in the 6.3-foot scenario, eight of the sites would see more than half their land flooded on a daily basis. Naval Air Station Key West, the worst hit, would be almost entirely submerged by high tides.
In March, Trump rescinded a series of Obama-era actions on climate, including at least two that applied to the Defense Department. While the change does not prohibit the department from continuing climate-related work, it removes many requirements. Congress may continue to press the military on sea level rise, however. In July, the House approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill that states “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States,” and that “military installations must be able to effectively prepare to mitigate climate damage” to infrastructure. The amendment would require the department to issue a report within a year on the vulnerabilities to its facilities. The language now has to clear a conference committee with the Senate, which passed its own version of the bill in September without any climate amendments. During his July confirmation hearing, Richard Spencer, Trump’s pick for Navy secretary, responded to questioning by saying he was “totally aware of the rising water issue” and promised to prepare the branch for climate change.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he thinks military leaders will continue working on climate change despite Trump’s resistance. But he said Congress hasn’t provided enough funding, and the current political climate won’t help. “It’s not going to be easy,” he said.
Protecting the City
Even if the Norfolk base got all the money it needed, and hoisted everything out of the floodplain, it would be worthless if the surrounding cities weren’t protected too. Just to the south, on the far side of the Lafayette River, a tiny corner of Norfolk’s Larchmont-Edgewater neighborhood shows how difficult that will be. The area is home to many military families and is bisected by Hampton Boulevard, the main route between downtown and the naval station.
Beginning in 2010, the city gave in to the relentless creep of the water by converting a tiny park at the end of a finger-shaped inlet into a wetland. The project also raised a stretch of road that runs along the park. All told, the work cost $1.25 million. It worked, and on a drizzly May morning with a full-moon high tide, the new road was clear.
But the elevated section is only five houses long. Where the road curves along the sides of the inlet, the river had spilled over its banks, reaching past the street and up to the front lawn of a small brick house. Dark green wetland plants sprouted in the lawn. Just to the right, a nearly identical home sat jacked up on cinderblocks, the main floor at eye level, raised three feet above the base flood elevation, a requirement for any new construction.
Along its 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk has to raise homes and roads, revamp drainage systems, build seawalls and replace concrete bulkheads with living shorelines and earthen berms. And these are not projects for later in the century.
“It’s a now problem,” said Skip Stiles, who runs a nonprofit called Wetlands Watch and is a leading advocate of adaptation in the region.
Norfolk is trying to embrace its extreme vulnerability as an opportunity, to become “the Silicon Valley of sea level rise,” said George Homewood, its planning director, whose business card is stamped with the city’s mermaid mascot. Norfolk received $120 million in federal funding last year to reshape another vulnerable neighborhood by elevating roads and erecting berms and floodwalls.
The city’s plans are laid out in “Vision 2100,” a document that describes how Norfolk can adapt over the next century. It divides the city into four zones, with a “red zone” of high risk and high value—including all of downtown and the naval base—where expensive fixes like seawalls are needed. (Part of downtown is already protected by a barrier erected after a storm flooded the area in 1962.) Much of the city’s shoreline, including Larchmont-Edgewater, falls in a “yellow zone,” where Norfolk cannot afford such expensive projects and will instead hope for a mix of innovation, private funding and, ultimately, planned abandonment.
The city says a rise of 2.6 feet would flood about 5 percent of its land on a daily basis and place nearly half of Norfolk in a high-risk flood zone. Most projections say such a rise will come some time in the second half of this century. And it won’t stop there. “The numbers we’re playing with are 3 meters in 100 years,” Homewood said.
No one has ventured realistic estimates for costs, but everyone seems to agree there won’t be enough money to protect everything. “How much money as a country are we going to put into Norfolk, Virginia? Is it $1 billion? Is it $10 billion? Is it $50 billion?” asked Titley, the retired admiral. “Over the next century or so, we’re talking at least in the tens of billions and probably in the hundreds of billions to protect parts of Hampton Roads.”
The 2013 state-sponsored study, which projected 1.5 feet of sea level rise within 20 to 50 years, said it takes two to three decades to plan and implement adaptation strategies. “We’re rapidly approaching the go/no-go point,” Stiles said. He pointed to a bridge in Virginia Beach that was first proposed in 2005 and is slated for completion next year. “That’s 13 years for a four-lane bridge. So if we don’t start pretty soon thinking about adding additional margins of safety, the ribbon cutting on the decisions we’re making today will be done in 15 or 20 years and the water will be X feet higher.”
At high tide, Stiles drove to the Hague, a crescent-shaped inlet where the Elizabeth River enters one of Norfolk’s historic neighborhoods. The Army Corps of Engineers is considering installing a tide gate on the inlet, at a cost of $70 to $90 million. Stiles stopped in the parking lot of an apartment building at the edge of the water and got out to look towards the Chrysler Museum, a grand limestone construction at one end of the inlet.
The Hague was spilling over its banks, covering the entire road ahead. “They’ll build this up,” he said, musing about what the area might look like in a few decades. “They’ll build a wall, they’ll put pumps in, they’ll protect it. But 80 years? That’s the head-scratcher. Because if in 80 years we get three feet of water…” Three feet would have put Stiles thigh-deep. “It’s hard to imagine a lot of this stuff still being here.”
Top photo: Fleet parking at Naval Station Norfolk flooded during Hurricane Isabel. Credit: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael Pendergrass/U.S. Navy