Protection From The Sea Is Possible, But Expensive Norfolk, Va., has spent decades — and millions of dollars — raising houses and building barriers to successfully hold back the sea. Expanding such efforts to other vulnerable coastal areas, such as New York and New Jersey, could work, but costs could reach the billions.
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Protection From The Sea Is Possible, But Expensive

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Protection From The Sea Is Possible, But Expensive

Protection From The Sea Is Possible, But Expensive

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

As the Northeast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, coastal cities are also looking ahead to the next big storm and the ones after that. The question is, how to prevent flooding in the future when rising sea levels will make the problem worse? We'll hear about making New York City more resilient in a bit. First to Norfolk, Virginia, a coastal city that's way ahead of the curve when it comes to flood protection.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports Norfolk experience shows protection is possible, but it's costly and complicated.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Just about everybody in Norfolk has a flood story. It's part of life in this low-lying port city at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Donna Woodward's story is about how she gets to her job at the local public radio station during storms.

DONNA WOODWARD: I have actually bought full-body hip-waders because Hampton Boulevard, which is the main artery that runs past our house, is always hip deep in water whenever it's like that.

HAMILTON: But Woodward says things in Norfolk are better than they used to be, when even normal tides would cause flooding.

WOODWARD: Our neighborhood, for instance, they spent some good money to elevate our street 18 inches. And ever since they've done that, honestly, we have seen, you know, like four-foot, three-foot tides that normally would have blocked off our street. No problem.

HAMILTON: Woodward says her street still floods during big storms, though. Also, the project was years in the making and cost more than a million dollars to complete. And it didn't do anything to protect the houses along the street. Woodward says her house has had major flood damage twice in the past five years, even though the electrical box has been raised and the air conditioner is on the roof.

WOODWARD: I love this house. I love Norfolk. I love living here. But it's incredibly stressful to know that this house either is going to have to be elevated or I'm going to lose it eventually.

HAMILTON: The city has been experimenting with this idea of elevating houses. So far, they've put more than 20 on taller foundations. A new grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay to elevate five more at a cost of about $900,000. Paul Fraim, the mayor of Norfolk, says it will take a lot more money and a comprehensive plan to make sure his city is still thriving 30 years from now.

MAYOR PAUL FRAIM: The city is slowly sinking into the Chesapeake Bay, and at the same time the sea level is rising.

HAMILTON: Fast. Tide gauges show the relative water level around Norfolk is more than 14 inches higher than it was in 1930. And the rate of sea level rise is increasing, especially between North Carolina and Boston. Even so, Fraim says he is optimistic.

FRAIM: It's a problem that if we, you know, work hard and get the very best science that I think we can actually, not only mitigate, but we can deal with and still do just fine.

HAMILTON: But not without a lot of planning and spending. The city already devotes about $6 million a year to improve storm water drainage. And it has hired the U.S. branch of Fugro, a Dutch company, to come up with a long-term plan to keep the water out of several vulnerable neighborhoods. Tom McNeilan of Fugro Atlantic says one of those projects involves a body of water with a Dutch name - The Hague.

TOM MCNEILAN: The Hague is like many areas, you've got a little encapsulated basin with a small outlet. It provides an opportunity to create a barrier with a gate so that you can close the gate, close the barrier when you have the tidal surge.

HAMILTON: And how expensive is it to do something like that?

MCNEILAN: Well, it's not a trivial expenditure. You're talking tens of millions of dollars for that particular project.

HAMILTON: Perhaps $60 million. To protect all the neighborhoods in Fugro's plan would take about a billion dollars. Protecting New York and New Jersey would take many times that amount. And communities say they can't do it without federal assistance. McNeilan says the dollar amounts are large. But he says previous investments in flood protection have paid off. For example, he says, the floodwall built in the 1960s that protects downtown Norfolk.

MCNEILAN: I think you could look at a picture of downtown Norfolk today looking over the floodwall and ask yourself, would all that development have occurred without the floodwall? And I think the answer to that clearly is no.

HAMILTON: The company where McNeilan works, Fugro Atlantic, is one of the businesses behind that floodwall. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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