As Sea Levels Rise, Norfolk Is Sinking And Planning Rising waters are threatening the giant naval base in Norfolk, Va., as well as the local businesses. The community is beginning to grapple with the reality, but many owners say they're staying put.

As Sea Levels Rise, Norfolk Is Sinking And Planning

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For the region around Norfolk, Virginia climate change has led to some of the highest sea level rises in the country. This has economic and national security implication since the area is home to a giant U.S. Navy base. Government business and community interests want to try to stem the damage. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: From the water’s edge the naval base spans the whole horizon, aircraft carriers, supply centers, barracks, Admirals homes fill a vast low-lying expanse.

How much of this naval base is actually vulnerable to flooding?

RAY TOLL: Majority of it, if not all of it, 'cause it's so low and it's flat.

NOGUCHI: Ray Toll is a retired naval oceanographer. Various studies predict sea levels in this area will rise between three and a half to more than five feet by the end of the century. Toll working through Old Dominion University is helping coordinate between the federal and local governments and area businesses. The group will devise a plan for dealing with the rising tides and estimate its potential costs. Toll says a regional approach is necessary because it's not just the military that's effective.

TOLL: That goes all the way down to some of the small shops that are right on the water because everybody lives here.

DAVID DIPALO: We've flooded in the past five years, three times and basically it's like we move for a day or two, and that's all you can do.

NOGUCHI: That's the same when David DiPalo, owner of O'Sullivan's Wharf, a restaurant three miles from the naval base backing right up to the water, where locals bring their catch to be fried. DiPalo says between lost business and food, damage and cleanup each time it costs between five and $10,000. But he says his current storm prep system works and he vows to stay put.

DIPALO: I don't believe in the rising sea levels, I think it's all a bunch of hype. The fact of the matter is we live on a living, breathing planet and I think it's just part of the planets cycle.

NOGUCHI: Rising waters are part of the everyday cycle too. Here in downtown Norfolk at high tide the water is just inches from cresting over the barrier and into the streets. Water routinely does that and so there's debris on the sidewalks and it smells a little musty. Residence here navigate alternate routes during flooding which happens more frequently. Norfolk's water levels are up one and a half feet since the 1920s, a fact that seems to a lot of outsiders more than natives. The Page House Inn in downtown Norfolk is a bed and breakfast just 200 feet from tidal Hague River. About a quarter of its guests are connected to the Navy.

DEBBIE WILBORN: All the front of the house, all the window casings and everything in there are all original.

NOGUCHI: Debbie Wilborn is the 115-year-old Inn's proud owner. From a sun porch she points to a bed of shrubs, 20 feet from the house.

WILBORN: The water will come up and flood this parking lot over here.

NOGUCHI: Just right next door.

WILBORN: Just right next door, but I don't ever worry because I haven't seen it get that powerful where it would come up into our driveway over here on the side of the house.

NOGUCHI: Outside of paying flood insurance she isn't planning for sea level rise. Water, Wilburn says, won't chase her out of the place.

WILBORN: If someone told me to evacuate and go, I'm like, no I'm staying right here, she's been here 115 years, I'm staying, I'm not going anywhere.

NOGUCHI: Around the area construction crews raise homes several feet off the ground for fees well into the six figures. Michele Duffy is considering moving to Norfolk and is studying the housing market. She says some waterfront properties here are selling for less than they did 30 years ago. She avoided the flood zones in Paducah, Kentucky when she bought a place there several years ago and water is on her mind even more now.

MICHELE DUFFY: If there is flooding I really want to know where it is so that I can stay away. And with climate change, what is the area going to look like and, you know, what are my investment opportunities?

NOGUCHI: Several miles away in Newport News, Bob Fallon has a huge job. The facilities director works for a defense contractor Huntington Ingalls, which a sprawling shipbuilding facilities.

NOGUCHI: How long have you lived here?

BOB FALLON: Almost 35 years.

NOGUCHI: Have you seen the sea level rise since then?

FALLON: Seven or eight inches probably.

NOGUCHI: Fallon says the company lifted the foundations for its air and power systems and is helping local utility companies protecting the power source from floods. It's also replacing old docks and buildings.

FALLON: We are building our new facilities higher off the ground. The equipment that's inside the facilities are - it’s built higher off the ground. You know, the material itself is more water resistant.

NOGUCHI: So do you think that this is about resilience but not relocation?

FALLON: Oh absolutely. It's about designing for resiliency, adapting to it. For shipyards and businesses it's not about relocation.

NOGUCHI: Decades from now the company will be there he says just operating on higher ground. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.


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