On Richmond Crescent in Norfolk, Va., more than a dozen homes rise in varying heights, forming a streetscape bar graph tracing the past decade’s increasing threat of flooding from an inlet of the Lafayette River. A green house with a prominent front porch is a modest four feet off the ground. Two doors down, a 70-year-old cottage has been newly raised 11 feet on blocks, at a cost of $154,000, nearly all of it federal and state money. On the corner, a one-story white-brick ranch looms about seven feet up, matching the height of the sage-colored brick house next door. A few homes still on ground level hunker among the high and dry houses looking down their proverbial noses at them.
George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director, has chosen the city’s affluent Larchmont neighborhood for our walking tour on this unseasonably warm December day. He pauses in the middle of Richmond Crescent, where repeated tidal flooding has cracked and buckled the asphalt, and wetlands grasses fringe the street. Nodding toward a new house that towers 12 feet above sea level, he poses the hard questions that cities and counties are only beginning to acknowledge as waters along the U.S. coasts continue their inevitable invasion. Will the city be better off if people live in that house for another 30 to 50 years but are unable to get in or out during high tides or lingering storms? How long, he asks, does the city maintain the street? Or keep the storm-water and sewer systems operating? What happens years from now, when emergency services can’t get to these homes because the street has flooded? “At some point, the investment in infrastructure can’t be sustained,” he says. “That’s the bottom line.”
Hurricanes get the headlines, but on this street, it will be the repeated jabs of flooding day after day from climate change, with its rising tides and increasingly stronger storms, that will force the city to make tough choices. By 2040, projections by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science show, the river will overflow its banks and flood this street twice daily during high tides. Norfolk plans to protect the city with $1.8 billion in storm-surge barriers and flood walls, but those projects — if built — won’t stop the rising tides in Larchmont. The water will come. This is where Norfolk will eventually begin its retreat.
The city doesn’t use that politically explosive term, the Voldemort of climate adaptation. Planners here and elsewhere refer to it as the “r-word.” They’re happy to talk about the other r-word — resilience, which includes projects like sea walls, retention ponds, rebuilding wetlands and improved storm-water capacity. Retreat signals surrender, while resilience screams reassurance: Don’t worry. Stay. We’ll protect you. That medicine goes down easier. It has been embraced by dozens of cities and states that have added resilience officers. Norfolk’s Vision 2100 plan, widely praised for envisioning a city withdrawing from some neighborhoods by making only “judicious” investments in protecting homes from rising waters, uses the word “retreat” only once, and then to say that the city will not retreat but will emphasize “living with the water.” The idea — for now — is not to force residents to abandon neighborhoods like Larchmont, but to have them gradually decide to leave as the inconvenience of staying grows. “I would like to abdicate as much to the marketplace as possible so that we’re not actually making the hard decisions that impact people, but we’re finding ways to encourage people to make smart decisions for themselves,” Homewood says. “We’re not saying that happens on a dime, but over time as that happens with more and more property, then we begin to have that managed retreat.”