Resilience planning involves knowing when and where to retreat

Norfolk: To fight flooding, this city plans to renovate—and retreat Bloomberg | Leslie Kaufman, March 10, 2021

When it rains in Norfolk, Va., the residents of the Chesterfield Heights and Grandy Village neighborhoods worry about getting cut off from the rest of the city. That’s because with a highway on one side and the Elizabeth River on the other, the two predominantly Black neighborhoods have only two main arteries in and out—and flooding routinely blocks one of them. It wasn’t always like this, but a combination of sea-level rise and more intense precipitation caused by global warming has transformed what was once a nuisance into something scary. So Norfolk decided to act. With help from a $112 million federal grant, the neighborhoods are getting a makeover that includes a tidal gate, restored wetlands, and a park that serves as a stormwater retention area. The city is hoping the area will be a model for coping with the climate challenges to come. The man overseeing the project is Norfolk’s Chief Resilience Officer Douglas Beaver. He’s charged with figuring out how to defend the city from the worst impacts of climate change. Norfolk is experiencing the fastest sea-level rise on the U.S. East Coast, with a projected increase of roughly 1.5 feet by 2050, the city estimates. […] Beaver’s list of projects in the planning stages includes extending an older flood wall and a new berm around downtown Norfolk. There are also designs for a new pump station for a neighborhood built on a drained creek bed, as well as for a Blue Greenway, a trail of rivers and ponds that can be enjoyed recreationally but also serve as water diversion. Yet Beaver points out that the role of the CRO is to know not only when to build, but also when to retreat. “Building is but one tool in the toolbox,” he says. In 2018 the city changed its zoning ordinances to require that all new construction meet tougher standards to protect against flooding. Of course, sometimes this isn’t enough. The city is enforcing federally funded buyouts of some particularly flood-prone areas and returning them to green space.