Broken Ground | Season 3 | Episode 3

Flood City

In Norfolk, Virginia homeowners like Karen Speights are struggling with the hard decision of staying put in rising waters or finding a way to start over. Meanwhile, the city is hoping it can buy people time.

Episode Transcript

In Norfolk, Virginia, homeowners like Karen Speights are struggling with the hard decision of staying put in rising waters or finding a way to start over. Meanwhile, the city is hoping it can buy people time.




By Emily Richardson-Lorente


KAREN SPEIGHTS: Sometimes I’m a little fanatical about it.


HOST: This is Karen Speights.


KAREN: I’m the person who’ll go knock on your door, (knocking) and I say “Hey, you might want to put those trash cans in your yard and also move your cars down the street.’


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: So are you the neighborhood crier? You’re like the town crier?


KAREN: I’m that person, but I only go to the people who are new, cuz the other people know it.


HOST: Karen is one of the many people living along our coast who track the tides, monitor the moon, and watch the weather like a hawk. All in an effort to predict when their street will flood.


KAREN: I didn’t know what it meant when I was younger. My mom would talk about the moon and she’d always know high tide, the time it comes in, all of that. So now I’m that person.


HOST: But as predictable as the tides are, rising seas and flooding caused by climate change are adding a huge dose of unpredictability, a dash of danger even. Forcing folks like Karen to take a long, hard look at their plans for the future. A future where flooding isn’t just a nuisance, but a harbinger of things to come.




HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the south and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. In our previous episode, we visited Charleston, South Carolina and heard about a few of the massive drainage projects the city is sinking its money into to help control flooding.


JOHN NELSON: You got six inches of water before it kicks the pump on. By then, I’m already going home.


HOST: If you missed that episode, we hope you’ll go back and listen. In this episode, we return to Norfolk, Virginia.




HOST: We start in Karen Speights’ backyard near the Elizabeth River.


EMILY RICHARDSON-LORENTE: What do you grow back here?


KAREN SPEIGHTS: Oh, um, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash ….


HOST: That’s Karen speaking to producer Emily Richardson-Lorente. Karen’s giving us a quick tour outside her family home. It’s a cheerful, yellow, one-and-a-half story bungalow in the Chesterfield Heights neighborhood of Norfolk. There’s a cute gazebo here, a clothes line, enough room to grow some vegetables. There’s no fence, just a wall of tall reeds that separate this yard from the creek behind it.


KAREN: And they’re like taking over because they were further back. You know, they keep growing in and there’s no one to maintain …


HOST: Out in front of Karen’s house, the street dead-ends about 50 feet from her door — in another wall of reeds.


KAREN: You see the marsh there and that brush, right?


HOST: If we could see through them, we’d see more of the creek, and beyond that, the Elizabeth River, which regularly overflows its banks.


KAREN: So when the water starts to come in, it travels this way, but it’s also coming up from the back. Now you see how the street slopes?


HOST: Honestly, we hadn’t noticed when we pulled in that the street sloped, but one side of Karen’s street is higher than the other. Not by a lot – by enough that if you were, say, playing kickball, the ball would roll towards her side of the road. Apparently, like so many spots in Norfolk, it’s just enough of a change to make all the difference.


KAREN: That little bit could mean the difference in a foot of water between coming in the house and not.


HOST: Karen grew up in this century-old waterside neighborhood. It’s middle-class, largely African-American. A little worn around the edges, maybe, but with picket fences and pops of pink crepe myrtle in the spring. Karen moved back here in 2008 to help take care of her mother.


KAREN: So I wanted to come back to be with her cause she was aging. She’s 91.


CLAUDINE: Oh, god bless her.


KAREN: I know, right. She’s funny too. (entering house) We coming in, Momma. Okay, girly girl? She’s all yours.


CLAUDINE: Hi Lillian.




HOST: Lillian is cozied up in an armchair under a blanket in the TV room. She’s dressed in a rose-pink zip-up sweatshirt and is sporting a funky, patterned headband.


(Lillian laughing)


HOST: Mother and Daughter clearly enjoy each other’s company.


LILLIAN: We just been happy together, fussing and fighting and carrying on.


HOST: Lillian and her late husband Moses raised seven kids in this house. Back in 1964 when they first moved in, there were lots of other families with young children. Now, of course, the kids are grown and most of the parents have passed on.


LILLIAN: I’m one of the last ones in the bunch … I’ve enjoyed being here, but it looks like the water’s gonna run us out.


HOST: Lillian says back in the day, the water from the creek and the river would occasionally fill their yard when it stormed, and even sometimes put the fire out in the furnace under their floor. But it never, ever came inside the living space.


LILLIAN: And all these years it hadn’t done that. And it was just surprising when it started rising so high and flooded us out.


HOST: Karen and Lillian both vividly remember the first time that happened, shortly after Karen moved home.


KAREN: My mother and I were sitting at the table having dinner. We were eating crab legs. And we were sitting there and I moved my foot and I said, “Mom, water’s coming in!” And she says, “No, it’s not!”


LILLIAN: And all at once, I felt something on my feet and it was the water coming up and I looked down at that water, I said, well I’m gonna finish these crabs. (laughing) And I did.


HOST: That first inside flood — and apparently those amazing crabs Lillian wanted to finish — happened in 2009, during a nor’easter.


KAREN: It was crazy. Just like the tide at the beach, how it comes in, it just started rushing in. We were picking up stuff and then, I felt something. What is that? The current had reached the outlets. It was shocking me and then we just went upstairs and left whatever we didn’t move. And it sounded like the roof was coming off. And we just waited. And when I came downstairs it looked like, almost like nothing happened. You know that quiet stillness, but everything was damaged.


HOST: Luckily, Karen & Lillian had flood insurance. Believe it or not, despite the fact that they’re in a FEMA-designated “high risk flood zone,” they’re not actually required to have flood insurance. Only homeowners with a federally backed mortgage have to have it — and the Speights family paid off their mortgage many years ago. Their insurance ended up doling out about $30,000 so they could tear out the drywall, refinish the wood floors, replace the cabinets, but…


KAREN: But then it happened again a year and a half later.


HOST: The second time the house flooded, it was water from Hurricane Irene.


LILLIAN: It is scary when you see it coming in. I watched it come in when my next door neighbor, she and her children had to get out. And I could see the water just coming, gradually coming and nothing you can do.


KAREN: I have two life jackets because I can’t swim. What if I have to get my mother out of here? It’s like, who knew I would do that?


HOST: Again, their flood insurance paid for repairs. This time, FORTY thousand dollars worth. And it paid yet again a year after that, when Hurricane Sandy pushed the water high enough to ruin the ductwork underneath the house. By the way, when I mentioned insurance in front of Lillian, her face dropped and she looked MAAAAD.


LILLIAN: It’s ridiculous because it’s too much.Insurance is eating you up.


CLAUDINE: This? Let me see.


HOST: And don’t tell Lillian, but the annual flood insurance bill is even higher than she thinks it is. Karen doesn’t want to worry her mom, but she showed us their bill in the other room while Lillian watched TV. For context, the average flood insurance premium in Norfolk is $704 a year, though Karen’s neighbor on the higher side of the street pays $600.


(noise of opening bill)


CLAUDINE: Four — oh my goodness.


KAREN: You have two options …


CLAUDINE: Right. So your first one is $4,894 or option two coverage is $4,470.


KAREN: That’s a lot of money. You see that.


CLAUDINE: That’s a lot of money.


KAREN: It’s a lot.


HOST: Despite Karen’s massive bill, most experts agree that the National Flood Insurance Program doesn’t charge nearly enough overall. And lots of them also question the wisdom of allowing homeowners to keep rebuilding in the same flood-prone areas. I mean, even KAREN wonders about the wisdom of that.


KAREN: Insurance, all it does is replace what is broken. My thinking is say, say within five years I’ve gotten $80,000. Why not say that this is what we need to do to stop this from happening, instead of keep throwing money at it? I wanted solutions which, flood insurance, they don’t give you that.


HOST: By this point, Karen has considered a whole range of options, most of which she and her Mom can’t afford on their own  – from lifting their house, to tearing it down and rebuilding it higher off the ground. But every option seems to have a hitch.


KAREN: I have so many limitations in what the city says I can do.


HOST: For one thing, lifting the hundred year old home, would mean bringing it up to current city code. That would push the little house eight feet higher off the ground, and – get this – it would cost more than a quarter of a million dollars. For a property that’s currently appraised at only $96,000.


KAREN: It’s just so way over my head.


HOST: And Karen’s not just worried about flooding, but about her elderly Mom who already struggles to climb the stairs to get to the second floor bedrooms.


LILLIAN: That’s right.


HOST: It’s kind of ironic that despite all the time they’ve spent with repair crews in the house, NONE of it has helped make the house more livable for Lillian – or for Karen, who hopes to live out her retirement here.


LILLIAN: It needs some work done.


HOST: In their desperation, they’ve even considered sacrificing a chunk of their cozy backyard to build a small addition with a downstairs bedroom. But even then …


KAREN: If I add on a room, then anything that I add on, it has to be up high! So yes, I’m just really frustrated in the process and then I’m not rushing anything because I don’t want to waste my money.


HOST: I want to make something clear here. Karen’s expectations aren’t unreasonable. She’s not looking to make a (big) profit on the house, or even pass it down to a child. She literally just wants it to last as long as she does – assuming she can figure out how.


KAREN: I don’t care how much I study or investigate, I don’t know what to do. Do you know what to do? Who knows what to do?


CLAUDINE: So Karen, I gotta ask you, at what point do you just say it’s enough and it’s time for us to go?


KAREN: People will say, why don’t you just move, but it’s not that easy to just pick up your life and start over. It takes money. No homeowner is going to buy a house where the flood insurance is $4,400 a year. You see what I’m saying? So we already know that’s not going to happen. And I’m trying not to just start over. I’m 61 years old. My plan was, ‘I’ll just remodel it some so when I retire everything’s good and I can do what I want.’ And then the water came and it changes everything.


CLAUDINE: As we’ve been doing these stories, one thing that has struck me over and over is something that a gentleman I spoke with in Charleston said, the question is how are we going to be able to make people whole — keep people whole — and over and over again, I think what I’m coming back to realize is not everyone can be made whole. It’s an impossibility.


KAREN: That’s very powerful. (sigh) That’s hard. I don’t know.


HOST: This question really threw Karen for a loop.


KAREN: I’m not making it anybody’s fault. It’s just so much to do. And the problem is so much bigger than me. I’m just another person that has it better than a lot of people.


HOST: Now, the city is trying something that it hopes will help everyone in Karen’s aging neighborhood. Doug Beaver, the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, who we met in episode one of this series, has the details — pages and pages of them.


CLAUDINE: Oh, look at this huge book right here.


DOUG BEAVER: Yes, that’s the environmental impact statement for Ohio Creek Watershed Project.


CLAUDINE: That’s a lot of information.


DOUG: 300 pages plus. (flipping pages)




HOST: The Ohio Creek Watershed Project is a massive flood resiliency investment in two low-lying neighborhoods wedged between the Elizabeth River and a major interstate. One is Chesterfield Heights, where Karen and her mom live, and the other is Grandy Village, one of the city’s public housing communities.


DOUG: This community struggles because it only has a one way in from the West and one way in North and South on Ballantine Boulevard.




HOST: With creeks running throughout the area, and an aging stormwater system, nuisance flooding from rain and high tides is bad enough here that one of the two roads out of the neighborhood is often impassable. So, with the help of a $120 million dollar award from an Obama-era program called the National Disaster Resilience Competition, the city is investing in a slew of gray infrastructure improvements: raising the roads, replacing stormwater pipes, installing a partial flood wall, and adding tide gates and pump stations. But planners have also gone out of their way to include green infrastructure as well.


DOUG: Because it’s not about, like, just gray infrastructure. And that’s the mindset and the, um, the blinders if you will, on how we’ve always thought of it: we’ll just put a wall there. That can’t be our going-in position as we look at this challenge from Miami to Maine.


HOST: In addition to generally being less expensive, green solutions can also have a different sort of psychological impact on a neighborhood. Nobody brags about living near a stormwater pump, but they might boast about having a view of a living shoreline. And Doug gets that.


DOUG: We have to think of that green infrastructure first.


HOST: So, much like the city’s plans for the St. Paul’s public housing community which we heard about in episode one, the Ohio Creek Watershed Project will incorporate some key green infrastructure. The city will install oyster reefs along the river’s edge. It will restore some natural wetlands. It will construct roadside gardens called bioswales to help keep water off the roads. And it will also reimagine a frequently flooded park in the neighborhood, which will be renamed “Resilience Park.”


DOUG: We will allow water during high tidal events to come into areas of the park, but then the main area will be used for athletic fields. We’re putting in basketball courts, park benches and amenities for both communities to come together near Chesterfield Heights and enjoy that.


HOST: It all looks lovely in the architectural renderings, but we really want to know what’s going to happen around Karen’s house, because even she doesn’t know that.


EMILY RICHARDSON-LORENTE: Right here. This house, the one with what looks like a shed behind it.


HOST: We found her house on the big wall map in the room, and asked Doug about it.


DOUG: So, um, Karen was at the civic league meeting last night, so I know Karen.


HOST: Turns out, he met Karen for the very first time the night before. And she made an impression.


DOUG: She pays $4,400 right now in flood insurance and that, um, is obviously a challenge for anyone, um, to continue to pay those exorbitant rates. So we’re working very hard with FEMA to get our community rating system such that we can offer more discounts.


HOST: Through its community rating system, FEMA allows localities to earn discounts on flood insurance for their residents, by taking extra steps to address flooding issues. Not just by, say, improving drainage systems or raising roads, but also by communicating better with the public about their flood risk. Last year, Norfolk teamed up with its neighbors in Hampton Roads to launch a $100,000 campaign called “Get Flood Fluent” to encourage residents to buy flood insurance.


VIDEO CLIP: (whoosh) Flooding is the most common natural hazard and floods here are a growing concern. Having flood insurance is a growing necessity. Do you have flood insurance? (whoosh) …


HOST: Apparently the answer for most people in Norfolk is no. As of 2018, only about 13% of households had flood insurance here. And that’s actually a DECREASE from five years earlier. But that’s not even the worst of it.


DOUG: There were areas that were well outside the flood zone that flooded, where no one had flood insurance.


HOST: In fact, according to FEMA, nearly a quarter of National Flood Insurance claims come from properties that lie OUTSIDE flood zones. The reason for that is pretty straightforward: FEMA draws its flood maps based on past events, so the maps don’t account for future sea level rise and increasingly heavy rain storms. Here’s what Doug says about that.


DOUG: Anytime you have any of these flood events that may not affect your neighborhood, you’ve got to take that as experiential learning and say, it didn’t happen here this time. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen in the future, [AC kicks on] so that’s why I bought flood insurance back in 1999. It’s gone up every year since I’ve lived there for 20 years. The house has never flooded. You just need to be prepared.


HOST: Karen Speights is as prepared as she can afford to be, and she still needs all the help she can get from this city project.


DOUG: She’s right on Haynes Creek, so there is going to be an earthen berm, which protects her from the tidal flooding.


HOST: As Doug describes it, the berm will be a gradually rising mound of fill at the rear of Karen’s property, designed to be 11 feet above sea level.


DOUG: So if I’m six feet tall, it’ll be as high as I am in this area here, and then it will have a three-to-one slope, so it’ll go about 18 feet in either direction off of that berm.


EMILY: So eventually there will be bulldozers in Karen’s backyard then, yeah?


DOUG: Yes, where there’s a berm, we’re going to have to build that up with backhoes and the like.


HOST: There’s also going to be some gray infrastructure – a pump station installed on the creek behind Karen’s home.


DOUG: So we’re gonna capture the water from the precipitation events and pump it out, and we’re going to prevent water from the nor’easters and the tidal events that come up in Haynes Creek over that berm.


CLAUDINE: I mean, when you describe it that way, and I’m looking at where she is, it’s like, yeah, she’s got water in front of her house that needs to be moved elsewhere.


DOUG: Right.


CLAUDINE: And behind her house is the creek that she needs to be protected from. Like if not, she’s just going to get squeezed.


DOUG: Correct. And if you look at the historical maps from Ohio Creek and Haynes Creek, a lot of this area was built up. So water is slowly reclaiming areas that used to be marshland. So as we look at fixing, you know, recurrent flooding in a neighborhood like Chesterfield Heights, you’ve got to understand what it looked like several hundred years ago because that’s what it’s gonna look like in a hundred years from now, if those current, sea level rise figures bear out.


HOST: And the question of how much seas will rise — and how fast — is a critical one for a project like this to ensure that it does what it’s supposed to do, for as long as it’s supposed to do it, without costing more than it should.


DOUG: So we’re looking at one and a half feet of sea level rise by 2050.


HOST: I don’t know about you, but I find it helpful to think of these numbers in terms of how high the water would be on me if I were standing in it. I’m 5 foot 6, so one and a half feet would be about knee level.


DOUG: Three feet between 2050 and 2080.


HOST: That would be waist level.


DOUG: And then four and a half feet between 2080 and 2100.


HOST:  That would be at my shoulders.


DOUG: There are other curves that go up to seven feet.


HOST: Well over my head, and probably yours too.


DOUG: And then there are more conservative curves that stick to 1.5 to 4.5 in the next, you know, 80 years.


HOST: For the Ohio Creek Project, the city planned 50 years ahead, and used what they’re calling an “intermediate high curve.”


DOUG: Let me see if I can find a picture …


HOST: Doug is looking for a map in the book. It shows how much of Karen’s neighborhood will likely flood during a typical storm if the seas rise another two-and-a-half feet and nothing is done to mitigate it.


DOUG: So here’s an example of what some of the 10-year storms will look like with two and a half feet of sea level rise.


HOST: We see these future flood maps a lot when we’re talking about sea level rise, and they’re always kind of mind-blowing. So much of the land is shaded blue — absolutely covered in water. On this future map, Karen’s entire street and most of her immediate neighborhood is underwater. The reality is: as bad as her previous floods have been, sea level rise could make the next one far worse.


EMILY: So is it possible, it just won’t be enough that the city will make these huge investments in these beautiful new communities and 40 years from now they’ll still be underwater?


DOUG: Well, that’s the discussion we have. We understand that you cannot decide to spend tens of millions of dollars and have that happen. And one would hope that that we as a human species get this right and take the action necessary to prevent these curves from continuing to spiral out of control.


CLAUDINE: So this is maybe just like we’re buying time for right now.


DOUG: This buys us time to get those to those other solutions.


HOST: Time is one thing Karen Speights fears she doesn’t have enough of.


KAREN SPEIGHTS: There’s no promises. They have to do the work and then you got to see if it works.


CLAUDINE: This is radio, so they can’t see the skeptical look on your face right now. I’m just going to tell you all, there’s a skeptical look on Karen’s face.


HOST: Karen says she spent years attending meetings about the Ohio Creek Watershed Project, asking questions, advocating for her neighborhood. Now, she’s practically holding her breath waiting to see what will come of it.


KAREN: Now I’m vested and I don’t want to leave before the magic happens.


CLAUDINE: And if at the other side of this project you are getting less flooding in your home, would you think, ‘That’s enough for me? I don’t need to rebuild this. I don’t need to change things. I’m just going to stay here?


KAREN: I think so. I think so. But you know the other part of that is we don’t know when the water’s coming. It could be another 20 years or it can be next year. It could be before they finish the project.


HOST: After six years of planning, the Ohio Creek Watershed Project finally broke ground this past February. It’s slated to be finished in 2023. Adapting existing homes and  neighborhoods like Karen’s for sea level rise is an expensive and on-going challenge. One the city doesn’t have a lot of control over or a lot of money to address. But one thing the city CAN control are the rules that govern NEW construction. In fact, in 2018, the city completed a comprehensive, 800-page rewrite of their zoning ordinances. Now Norfolk has some of the most aggressive and flood-ready zoning rules in the country.



GEORGE HOMEWOOD: We promised you two years ago that we were going to bring you the most resilient zoning ordinance in America. We believe we’ve done that.


HOST: That’s George Homewood, Norfolk’s Director of City Planning, speaking to the City Council in 2018.


GEORGE: But resilience, like freedom, isn’t free. There are costs associated with being a resilient community.


HOST: The new zoning ordinance that he’s introducing here uses a point system and requires developers to meet a “resilience quotient” for most buildings. They can earn points, for instance, by including a permeable driveway or rain barrels.


GEORGE: “While it might drive up the initial acquisition cost, the total cost of ownership, we believe, will be driven down.”


HOST: “Driven down” because a more resilient home would lower flood insurance costs and decrease utility bills, among other benefits. But the ordinance didn’t pass without controversy. Local developers and realtors worried that it would damage home sales.


JACK BLAKE: The homeowners are only going to pay so much to live in this city.


HOST: Jack Blake was one of the realtors who spoke at the City Council meeting.


JACK: Having the most resilient zoning code in the country is a great headline. It’s great for P.R. But if we short circuit the recovery we’ve had in the housing market in order to accomplish that, have we really made a step forward?


ANGELIA GRAVES: I’m one of those people who has to sell these houses …


HOST: City Councilwoman Angelia Graves also happens to be a realtor.


ANGELIA: … so I also would like to see some balance between our resiliency efforts and how we implement them …


HOST: She said she started the day prepared to ask for a continuance. She wasn’t ready to vote in favor of the new zoning ordinance.


ANGELIA: But I want to make sure that if I’m still alive in 50 years and I still want to sell real estate in 50 years, there are houses that are here for me to sell … and the one thing that I do love about this job is that you can always change your mind, so I vote aye.


SPEAKER: Ms. Johnson?




SPEAKER: Ms. McClellan?


ANDRIA MCCLELLAN: Heartily aye, thank you.


CLAUDINE: In your mind, what does Norfolk look like 50 years from now? Is it just wetter everywhere?


DOUG BEAVER: I expect Norfolk to be drier in 50 years.


HOST: That’s not the answer I was expecting from Doug Beaver. He says it all depends, of course, on how closely the city follows the Vision 2100 and coastal storm risk management plans that we talked about in episode one, and how successful they are in funding it all.


DOUG: We will be and should be the example of how a community stays dry in areas that we expect to stay dry in, and in areas that we don’t, areas where we have, uh — the term that’s being used is “managed retreat” — so in some areas where we know we have to absorb that water for some period of time, let’s do that …


HOST: Doug says they’re still trying to figure out where managed retreat might be necessary, and for how many homes. There is no condemnation authority in Virginia — meaning, the city can’t force people to leave their houses.


DOUG: Everything boils down to that particular homeowner, right? So, there’s some folks who will not want to move out of their neighborhood.


HOST: From Karen’s house, my producer Emily and I are heading ten minutes across town to another middle-class neighborhood appropriately called Riverview. We turn down a road that dead-ends at the Lafayette River. Most of the homes on this stretch are modest, one-stories.


(dogs barking, car doors slam)


HOST: The house closest to the water here is a well-tended, little bungalow. There’s potted plants on the porch, a set of windchimes, a smiling sun & moon sculpture on the wall. We knocked, and met 52-year old Ray Searcy.


CLAUDINE: What do you like about living here?


RAY SEARCY: Quiet, animal sounds, lions.


HOST: Yeah, he said lions. The Virginia Zoo is just across the road, a couple hundred feet away.


RAY: It’s not just that, I mean, the marshland, the water.


HOST: If you were to google map Ray’s address, you’d see that the road he’s on used to extend past his house another 200 feet, almost to the edge of the Lafayette River.


RAY: Used to walk up to the edge because the road was there, but now you can’t.


HOST: That end of the road flooded so often that in 2017, the city of Norfolk tore it up and returned it to wetlands. Now the road ends abruptly at Ray’s house, and a ten-foot tall wall of marsh grass crowds his picket fence. And an interesting reminder of this history are two old fashioned Main Street-style lamp posts are still out there in the marsh, jutting above the reeds. It’s a little surreal.


RAY: The only thing’s different is the pathway, the roadway, that’s it.


HOST: There is one other thing that’s different. The sea level. Norfolk has a tidal gauge on the end of a Navy pier about 7 miles from here. The Sewell’s Point tide gauge. It’s been measuring sea levels consistently since 1927, about a decade after Ray’s house was built. Back then, the water was a foot and a half lower here. But it’s been creeping up ever since.


RAY: Past three days, the water’s been coming up under the van, so that’s just normal wind.


CLAUDINE: How often do you have to move your car because of the water?


RAY: This time of the year, quite often.


CLAUDINE: So do you feel like the rising water in Norfolk is disrupting your life in any way?


RAY: I wouldn’t say disrupting, but it’s only once or twice I was not able to get to work just because the water was up so high. But other than that, no.


HOST: Like a lot of Norfolk residents, Ray seems to be taking the rising seas in stride. Even when the street’s been inundated during storms, it’s been a good excuse for him and his neighbors to hang out together. It sounds like his son and his friends certainly enjoy it.


RAY: With him and his friends, every time the water comes up, they’ll get the kayak or whatever they have and go floating around in the water.


CLAUDINE: Yeah? They’re not worried that there’s just some, like, muckety-muck in the flood waters or that they could get sick?


RAY: Nah, no, nobody never got sick walking through the water.


HOST: A quick aside here. There’s a reason I asked that question and we’ll get to it in episode 5 when we meet a local university professor who studies the floodwater.


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: People should just know don’t go in the flood water, because there will be [bleep] in it. Literally.


HOST: So definitely check that one out.


RAY: This one time, we’re — all our neighbors, we were like, acting dumb walking through the water during like, the northeast storm, at the tail end of it, I’m just looking around looking at the wire swinging, I said, you sure we should be standing here with the wires swinging like that? (laughing) So we all decided to head out, go back inside.


CLAUDINE: You were the voice of reason. (laughing)


RAY: Yeah, you could see the whole neighborhood being barbecued.


HOST: Nobody’s been barbecued yet, but the water HAS done real damage. It came inside Ray’s house in 2003, and again 3 years later, requiring $45,000 worth of repairs. Insurance paid for those — and for repairs all up and down the street. But recently, FEMA — which runs the National Flood Insurance Program — decided to start cutting its losses.


RAY: One, two, three, four houses down there already bought them out and they’re going to tear it down.


HOST: Of the 14 houses on this quarter-mile street, four have recently been purchased by the City of Norfolk, using FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant funds. They’ll be demolished, and the city will convert the empty lots to wetlands. If all goes according to plan, that should help alleviate flooding in the remaining homes.


RAY: They tried to buy ours but we decided we didn’t want to do it.


HOST: Ray lives here with his wife, whose family has a long history in this house. Her mother lives here with them, and her father passed away here last year.


RAY: Her grandmother died here and her grandfather died here in this house.


CLAUDINE: Would there ever be a time that you’d think I’ll move from this home because’s it’s just …


RAY: No, I mean, we’ve been here so long.


HOST: Ray and his family aren’t the only ones who turned down the city’s offer.


RAY: So this is staying, that’s staying, and that’s staying – these 3 houses right here.


HOST: The three houses that will remain – at least for now – are the ones built closest to the river. That may seem paradoxical, but those homes are apparently just high enough — six shallow steps up from the sidewalk, in Ray’s case — to avoid flooding under normal conditions.


RAY: But the ones on the slabs always flooded, every time the water comes up high.


HOST: It’s not cheap to buy out homes – even ones that have been repeatedly damaged by flooding. In each case, the city has to negotiate with the homeowner to arrive at a price.


RAY: But I’m not sure what they gave them, but they just got tired of the flooding too, so they decided to go ahead and take the offer and move on.


HOST: So I’m going to throw a lot of numbers at you here. It turns out, the buyouts totaled nearly $800,000. And that doesn’t include demolition costs. But FEMA – which will pay 75% of both bills – has decided it’s worth it, if only to prevent future flood claims. All together, these four modest homes had filed $411,000 worth of flood claims since 1999. In fact, one of the couples who agreed to a buyout lived through not one, not two, not three, but SEVEN bad floods in 15 years. And their property, assessed at $185,000 in value, had received a total of $189,000 in flood insurance payouts.


EMILY: So those people are gone?


RAY: Oh yeah. They’re already moved out and gone.


CLAUDINE: Where’d they move? Do you know?


RAY: Oh, they moved to Pennsylvania – our best friends. So my wife’s like heartbroke about that. But they still talk. She planned on going over there to visit.


HOST: Despite his wife’s heartbreak, Ray says they intend to stay in this house until either “nature tears it down, or the city makes them move.” But he has a word of caution for everyone else:


RAY: Unless you like the water, don’t come moving in here.


HOST: Don’t come moving in here, he says.


RAY: Not in the flood city, you know?


EMILY: Thank you so much.


RAY: Yes, you’re welcome.


CLAUDINE: Thank you.


RAY: You all have a good day.




HOST: Here on Ray Searcy’s street, the city is not just buying houses. It’s buying time. But it’s hard to imagine that such an expensive and piece-meal retreat will keep the city ahead of the water. After all, seas are rising faster with each passing decade, and the precious few inches that now keep Ray’s house above the floods, will be erased soon enough – just like the inches that used to keep Karen Speights and her mom safe. Whether the new wetlands on Ray’s road, or the Ohio Creek Project in Karen’s neighborhood will allow them to regain those inches … well, they’ll just have to hold their breath and see.




HOST: Next time on Broken Ground, we head back to Charleston, South Carolina, where sea level rise has persuaded the Aquarium’s Director of Conservation

to include humans in his ‘species of concern.’


AL GEORGE: What can you give people that have little or limited resources? And my response is: the best thing you can give them is time.


PAIGE POLK: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s put together by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Paige Polk, Kelley Libby, Jennie Daley, and hosted by Claudine Ebeid McElwain. Our theme music is by Eric Knutson. The archival audio clips you heard in this episode were found at Get Flood Fluent dot org and on Norfolk TV. And hey – if you enjoyed this episode, we’d love it if you’d subscribe to the podcast and write us a review on your favorite podcast app.Thanks for listening!