It’s an eight minute ride on The Tide, from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus in Norfolk’s Ghent district to downtown Norfolk. The Tide is the city’s Light Rail Transit line. Opened in 2011, the line runs seven and a half miles from its western terminus at EVMC/Fort-Norfolk, through downtown Norfolk, to its eastern terminus at Newtown Road. From end to end, the ride takes 18 minutes, including brief stops at nine intermediate stations.
The route to the east from Downtown Norfolk is far from scenic. It runs roughly parallel to Interstate-264, which means that the passing scene consists mostly of highway support structures — underpasses, overpasses, level-crossings, and the like. Also on view are commercial buildings and parking lots. Many parking lots. Suburban residential areas along the the way appear like untamed nature by comparison. The ride is comfortable and entertaining. And it gives one an appreciation of the enormous amounts of concrete and blacktop used to sustain our automobile economy.
The Tide is presently equipped with nine Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicles. These are double-ended cars with operating controls at both ends and doors on both sides. The same vehicles are in use or on order at nine or ten other US cities.
According to the August 13, 2016 issue of the Virginia-Pilot, building the 7.4-mile line cost $318.5 (including $86 million in cost overruns). That year, weekday ridership had reached 4,800, and the operator, Hampton Roads Transit, declared the project a success. There’s been talk since then about extending the system into other parts of Norfolk and into Virginia Beach.
Investment in Light Rail Transit systems makes perfect sense. They are clean, quiet, safe, popular, and they do the job. But for Norfolk, the big question is this: Expand the transit system or Protect the city against the rising sea — which comes first?
The Coastal Plain — the land bordering the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Cape Cod — was once sea bottom. It has low topographic relief and extensive areas of wet land and drowned valleys such as the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and Long Island Sound. From the air the plain looks as flat as a pancake. The part of the plain that extends eastward into the Atlantic, forms the continental shelf. Norfolk, Virginia, is located on the eastern edge of the plain, on land the sea now wants to reclaim as its own.
It’s a pleasantly warm November day in downtown Norfolk. The sun is shining on the Elizabeth River and there’s nothing to suggest to the casual visitor that the city is under threat from an encroaching ocean. But the Inhabitants of the city are well aware of the threat and are constantly reminded of it.
For example, here’s part of a memorandum from the administrators of the Eastern Virginia Medical School to its students, faculty, and staff, concerning campus safety:
[The school] is located in a low lying coastal area; Norfolk’s elevation and its proximity to several rivers make it susceptible to flooding. Nearly every year, and sometimes several times throughout the year during times of heavy rain, hurricanes or nor’easter storms, the EVMS Community is threatened with the potential of precipitation, tidal and/or wind-driven flooding and/or low-land flooding.
The memo goes on to offer safety tips: If advised to evacuate your home, do so immediately; If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move to higher ground; If possible, move essential items to an upper floor; Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves; Do not walk through moving water. As little as 6 inches of moving water can make you fall; Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.
The EVMS campus is located a mile or so north-west of Norfolk’s downtown core, in the district called Ghent. But the threat of flooding is not restricted to any one area, it is a constant concern throughout the city.
What the map tells us is that, under present sea level conditions, the surge from a category three hurricane would put most of the city under several feet of sea water. However, because the level of the sea is continuing to rise, the potential for catastrophic flooding will increase with time.
The grey area on the map at the north end of the city marks the location of Navel Station Norfolk, the nations largest navel base. The base is particularly vulnerable to storm surge. When a serious storm approaches, the fleet wisely heads out to sea.
So what can be done to protect the city?
The US Corps of Engineers – Norfolk District, has produced a 438-page report titled ‘Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study’ in which it proposes building — at a cost of $1.57 billion — a series of storm surge barriers and sea walls. The scheme is designed to protect the city from a 50-year storm, assuming a rise in sea level of 1.5 feet. However, since no one knows what level the sea will actually rise to, or how strong future storms will actually be, and considering the high cost of the plan, it’s unlikely the city will move on the recommendations any time soon.
The May 21, 2018 issue of Inside Climate News, quotes George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director:
“I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues, . . . There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin’ on?”
In the same issue, the author, Nicholas Kusnetz, writes:
“Norfolk officials say they don’t know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won’t be enough.”