Broken Ground | Season 3 | Episode 1

Gardening Tidewaters

Norfolk, Virginia’s waters are rising fast, and its land is sinking. The city’s plans to meet this climate change challenge could be a blueprint for other coastal communities. Among other plans, Norfolk has set it sights on revamping its aging public housing complexes. We’ll talk to folks living in one of these communities about what adaptation will mean for them. 

Episode Transcript

Coastal communities like Norfolk, Virginia, bear the brunt of climate change in the form of harder-hitting storms from the Atlantic and more severe, more frequent storm surge. As residents deal with flooded streets, lawns, and neighborhoods, the city is forced to reckon with what it means to live with water. As Norfolk crafts a response, residents debate the future and what it means for a place to be ‘livable’ as sea levels rise.




By Emily Richardson-Lorente


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: Okay, hook me up with some science. I think it’s raining outside right now. I think it’s a full moon tonight. Where do I go tomorrow to see water in the city?


MARK WILBERT: Tomorrow morning at eight o’clock you can go just about anywhere. Mother nature is going to give us a dose of a lot of water from the tide.


HOST: In Charleston, South Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia, nuisance flooding is a fact of life.


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: Instead of snow days, we have flood days in Norfolk because the buses can’t make it into the neighborhoods.


HOST: Seas are rising all over. But here in the southeast U.S., sinking land built on fill is magnifying the effect.


RICHARD HABERSHAM: When they built up all these subdivisions, they had to haul in a ton of dirt just to elevate it.


HOST: Now, in these thriving coastal communities, the water is trying to reclaim its territory.


DOUG BEAVER: On a dry day, it will come up through the stormwater system and basically come out through the grates.


HOST: For some, the flooding is no big thing …


STUDENT: I feel, like, for those who, like, live in Norfolk, like, the tides and the flooding, it’s just kind of like a normal thing that we see all the time.


HOST: For others, it’s having a bigger impact …


JENI HELMLY: The stress level that nurses have to go through just in their everyday job, having the flooding on top of that is a huge stress.


HOST: And it’s not just nuisance flooding. With sea level rise, flooding from storms can be far more devastating.


LILLIAN SPEIGHTS: It is scary when you see it coming in. Ain’t nothing you can do. I’ve enjoyed being here, but it looks like the water’s going to run us out.


HOST: So Norfolk and Charleston are investing in massive flood resiliency projects. They’re raising roads, lifting homes, building berms …


SKIP STILES: They’ll do this all over the city. It’s expensive. It buys you some time until the eventual hard decisions have to be made.


HOST: And they’re beginning — ever so carefully — to talk about retreat.


ALBERT GEORGE: But my thing is you can’t throw around the word “retreat” if you don’t have a plan for everyone.


HOST: Will the burdens and benefits be equally shared, or will some pay a higher price for sea level rise?


KAREN SPEIGHTS: 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.


HOST: Will our coastal cities hit a point of no return with rising seas, or is there reason for hope? We’ll explore this question on this season of Broken Ground.




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 this season, we’re diving deep into sea level rise, focusing on two of our most impacted southeastern cities.




HOST: We start in Norfolk, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in coastal Virginia. Norfolk is a water town. I mean that literally. It’s only 54 square miles, but it has 144 miles of shoreline. And with the country’s largest naval base and a bustling port, Norfolk’s culture, economy – in fact its very existence – is based on the water. But now that existence is threatened by the very thing that defines it. Norfolk is low-lying. It’s flat. And it’s sinking. Throw in rising seas, and the city is facing one of the highest (relative) rates of sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast. How the city guides its quarter of a million residents to adapt may be the litmus test for many other coastal communities facing sea level rise. Let’s head to one of the city’s flooding hotspots. It’s just east of the wealthy central business district.


MARQUITTA WHITE: By the time I wear heels or my regular shoes out here, I’m in the ground faster than when you at a funeral.


HOST: I’m sitting with Marquitta White in the cinderblock office of the Tenants Association of Tidewater Gardens. This is one of the aging public housing communities in Norfolk.


(Smoke detector beeps)


HOST: Oh yeah, a side note — the smoke detector needs a new battery.


MARQUITTA: When it floods, it – [clap] – it’s instant, whether it’s a light rain, a mist rain, you know, it floods. You have to invest in rain boots to live out here. You need the fisherman boots. And flood insurance.


HOST: Marquitta is 35, a single mother of two girls. She was a personal chef for years, until she had a terrible car accident — like airlifted-to-the-hospital kind of terrible. She badly broke both her legs, and ended up in a rehabilitation facility for several months.


MARQUITTA: Somebody had to give me a bath and so [beep] the only thing I could do is feed myself and watch, um, Golden Girls.


CLAUDINE: Cuz you couldn’t use your legs?


MARQUITTA: No. But I got on the walker, I would try — my goal was to use the bathroom by myself. I had my faith …


CLAUDINE: Did you say you watched Golden Girls?


MARQUITTA: Yeah, that’s my show. (laughing)


HOST: Yeah, little shout out to Golden Girls. Now, Marquitta and HER girls are living here in public housing while she pursues a degree at the local community college and volunteers as the president of the Tenant’s Association.


MARQUITTA: Twenty-two more credits, I’m graduating. I mean, I’m ready for whatever’s going to happen.


HOST: This community of more than 600 subsidized apartments was built on a former creekbed back in the 1950s, when the waters in Norfolk were about a FOOT lower. Now, the aging infrastructure is crumbling, and flooding is a big issue. But the water’s not the worst of it.


MARQUITTA: So one day, I’m walking to my daughter’s school and I slip and I bust my behind. I’m thinking I’m avoiding the water. And you see it looked like it’s mud. It was not mud, it was feces …




MARQUITTA: … and the reason why I know is because when I slipped [beep] my knee started bleeding. So I’m trying to actually scrape it off. I’m like, what is that smell? Like, I’m so mad. And my shoes, they stunk so bad, I had to throw everything away.


CLAUDINE: … and you have a cut and there’s, you know, I mean …


MARQUITTA: Exactly, so alcohol was my friend. Peroxide was my friend.


CLAUDINE: Are you telling me that every time it floods here, there’s feces in the water?


MARQUITTA: That’s sewage. I mean I used to play in mud as a little girl in the South, so we know mud pies, we know mud, like, no, it was so rich and thick, like if I would’ve smacked my enemy with that, they would’ve known that that was what that was.


CLAUDINE: I would not want to be your enemy. (laughing)


MARQUITTA:  So yup, you guys actually came out on a good day.


HOST: Marquitta offered to show us around her neighborhood.


MARQUITTA:  Okay, so this is the street where it starts.


HOST: Because Tidewater Gardens was built on top of a former creek, half of the apartments here lie inside the 100-year flood plain.


MARQUITTA:  I live at the end. We’re going to go around. I’m gonna show you.


HOST: She shows us where she fell.


MARQUITTA: After I got up, my neighbor laughed at me after he helped me up. I let him laugh, it’s okay. I was cute that day too. You couldn’t tell me nothing. I was walking to my daughter’s school.


HOST: The neighborhood school is on the other side of the chain link fence behind us, and Marquitta says kids sometimes slosh through the flood water here on their way to school. The lawn on the inside corner has deep, muddy tire ruts running between a tree and a satellite dish.


MARQUITTA: Because the people that live along here, when it floods, they have to figure out how they’re going to be able to get out.


CLAUDINE: Oh yeah. It’s totally still muddy.


MARQUITTA: I’m going to show you that’s not mud.


CLAUDINE: So you really think that’s, like, sewage?


MARQUITTA: That’s sewage. And there are some times where it comes out of the ground. In certain areas you’ll see tissue in the back of people’s yard.


HOST: So a quick note here. It’s not clear whether sewage is actually coming up from the aging sewer system, or whether the water is washing it in from another location. But either way, filthy floodwater frequently fills this corner of Tidewater Gardens.


MARQUITTA: Sometimes they have to send the city out to actually pump the water cause it doesn’t go anywhere days at a time.


HOST: Marquitta suspects that the floodwater lingers here in part because of clogged storm drains.


MARQUITTA: So you’re looking at backup already in the sewage, plus trash or leaves …


HOST: While debris CAN certainly slow drainage, the bigger problem is likely one Marquitta can’t see: with sea level rise, the outfall-ends of the drain pipes are increasingly underwater during high tide, so the water has nowhere to go. Either way, the storm drains probably aren’t as clogged as they could be.


MARQUITTA: You’ll see Ms. Marie out here with her broom or her shovel. And she’ll try to get it.


HOST: Marquitta’s talking about her elderly neighbor, Ms. Marie, who sweeps the leaves from the storm drains before it rains.


MARQUITTA: She won’t let nobody help her. I send my kids out. She don’t want no help.


HOST: Another thing about Ms. Marie? In all of Tidewater Gardens, there is only one actual garden. And it’s in front of Ms. Marie’s apartment.


MARQUITTA: And Ms. Marie lives over here where all the plants are.


CLAUDINE: Oh, I see all those plants over there!


MARQUITTA: Yeah, she’s been out here since horse and buggy. There she go. Hi, Ms. Marie!


HOST: Ms. Marie is a tiny, spunky woman. Today, she’s wearing bright pink pants and a crushed velvet hat. She’s got a sign hanging outside her front door that says, “Save Your Drama for Your Mama.” Ask her how old she is and she answers with a little dance.


MARIE WEBB: Eighty-five! (laughing)


CLAUDINE: Eighty-five and a wiggle!


MARIE: That’s right! Still going strooooooong.


HOST: She must be going strong, if she can maintain a garden like this. Her entire front lawn is absolutely filled with plants. And it’s clear how she feels about it.


MARIE: Love my yard! I love it! Love it!


CLAUDINE: How long have you lived here?


MARIE: Oh my god, don’t ask me that. (laughing)


MARQUITTA: I’m telling you horse and buggy.


MARIE: We didn’t have no street when I moved here.


CLAUDINE: You didn’t have a street? What was it out here?


MARIE: Dirt.




HOST: A LOT has changed besides the roads since then. Her garden grew. Her kids moved away. She reached retirement age and left her job working in a school cafeteria. And all the while, the water around Norfolk was rising. Now, the creek that was originally filled in to build Tidewater Gardens is trying to reclaim its territory. But the city of Norfolk has big plans for this community: a potentially precedent-setting project designed to not only fix the flooding but also – in the city’s words – to “deconcentrate poverty.” We’ll come back to that project a little later in this episode. But first, let’s take a step back. As a coastal city, Norfolk is no stranger to flooding. Though nuisance flooding HAS increased sharply in the last thirty years, storms have ALWAYS battered the shoreline and flooded beach roads. But a 1962 nor’easter called the Ash Wednesday storm wreaked such havoc downtown, that it led to perhaps the city’s first real attempt at controlling the flood waters.



NARRATOR: Beginning as a heavy snowfall, the killer tempest buries parts of Virginia in three feet of snow, before carrying its wet cargo out to sea. Then, with unexpected fury, a murderous backlash of staggering winds whips the coastal area from the Carolinas to New England, to bring two days of tragedy and horror to thousands.



JIM REDICK: Devastated 620 miles of shoreline. Over 40 fatalities and 1200 injured. That’s a mass fatality event.


HOST: Jim Redick is the city’s Director of Emergency Management. Here he is giving a speech to the Norfolk Historical Society about the 1962 storm.


JIM: A Nor’easter should not kill. It’s the water. It’s always the water. Surge is the number one killer for tropical storms and nor’easters … run from the water and hide from the wind, that’s the strategy. This shouldn’t happen.


HOST: As devastating as that 1962 storm was, the same storm today would likely be far more destructive thanks to climate change and sea level rise. Not only is the water nearly 11 inches higher now in Norfolk, but storms themselves are bigger, more slow moving, and they dump more rain.


JIM: God made floods. Man makes disasters, right? So we have to be smart with how we develop, where we develop, make sure that when we rebuild, we’re doing so in a resilient manner that takes into account that mother nature is going to win and we have to make sure that we adapt accordingly.


HOST: In the wake of that Ash Wednesday storm, the Army Corps of Engineers did what it does best: it built a wall, separating the downtown business district from the Elizabeth River.


KYLE SPENCER: This is kind of the beginning of the flood wall.


HOST: My producer Emily Richardson-Lorente and I got a tour of the half-mile long wall from Kyle Spencer, the city’s Deputy Chief Resilience Officer. He started working with the city about 12 years ago, as a mapping expert.


KYLE: When I started doing this type of work it was really kind of hush hush this whole sea level rise concept wasn’t something we were allowed to talk about a lot. Like I couldn’t give presentations at conferences about all the cool stuff we were doing.




KYLE: Economic development I think was worried about scaring away projects


HOST: But Kyle says he’s seen a real paradigm shift since then


KYLE: It’s kind of like, yeah, we recognize we have a problem, but we’re actually doing something about it, so you know, work with us, right?


HOST: Now, Norfolk wants to be both a model and an incubator. In fact, they have an annual competition to help kickstart flood-related tech. They’re also working with Waze, the navigation app, to incorporate local flooding and road closure information. Plus — I thought this was pretty cool — they’ve installed flood sensors across the city and worked with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to really hone their predictive capabilities.


KYLE: So, for every, like, square on the sidewalk, we know how deep the water is up to 36 hours in advance of a storm.


HOST: While cutting-edge technology will absolutely play a role in future flood protection efforts, there’s no high-tech replacement for this very low-tech downtown flood wall. At its highest, the wall is about eight-and-a-half feet tall here at the base of City Hall Avenue, which – much like Tidewater Gardens – at one point was filled with water.


KYLE: This used to be Town Back Creek.




KYLE: The only way to cross it was a walking bridge in the old days. You know, a lot of coastal cities do this, Charleston as well. We reclaimed land. We filled in these old creeks and built on top of them —


CLAUDINE: So this was a creek right here?


KYLE:  Yep.


CLAUDINE: And there was a bridge?


KYLE: Yeah.


CLAUDINE: And now it’s like a big intersection in the middle of the city?


KYLE:  Right. With buildings all around it.


HOST: So hey, did you hear Kyle say they “reclaimed land”? That’s a phrase I’ve heard in other cities too, and it’s a little confusing, because what it really means is creating new land where there was once water. It’s not hard to see why Norfolk and other cities that did this are now having flood problems.


CLAUDINE: Do you think there’s ever a point in the city where they say it’s time to let this go back to what it was and we need to, like, reimagine where our roads are going?


KYLE: Yeah, so that’s sort of the essence of the Vision 2100 plan that we worked with the planning department on.


HOST: “Vision 2100” is literally the city’s plan for what it will look like 80 years from now, when the waters around Norfolk are predicted to be between four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half feet higher than they were in 2000. It’s a relatively slim document, with a series of color-coded maps of the city.


KYLE: We broke the city out in these big areas, right? And the red area, which is where we’re at, is protected. Build these infrastructure measures to keep it out because it’s essential to the economies of the city and everything else.


HOST: The red also includes the ports and the massive Naval Station Norfolk. Like the business district downtown, those are huge economic engines for the city and they’d be virtually impossible to relocate.


KYLE: But there are other parts of the city that we mapped differently that said, If the roads need to get repaved because of the flooding all the time and all that, we may at some point in the future stop doing that.


HOST: Those parts of the city are euphemistically called “adaptation areas.” On the map, they look like delicate yellow tendrils spidering into many of the waterfront neighborhoods built along the city’s creeks and rivers. The Vision 2100 plan only mentions the word “retreat” once, but these are the neighborhoods where that process would likely have to start.


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: There’s a for sale sign down there, for sale sign there, that one …


RAY SEARCY: … one, two, three four houses down there already, bought ‘em out and they’re going to tear it down …


SKIP STILES: … used to be a wetland and it will be a wetland again in a (laughing) in a few decades.


HOST: We’ll visit these neighborhoods – and hear more about wetlands – in a future episode.


KYLE: And then we have areas of the city that are naturally high ground that we want to promote development.


CLAUDINE: So it sounds like part of the calculations is prioritizing the areas that are economically vibrant, and giving those the gray infrastructure?


KYLE:  Right. Yeah, you could think of it that way.


HOST: So when we say “gray infrastructure,” we’re talking about the stuff cities are full of: concrete walls, roads, stormwater pipes. Green infrastructure, on the other hand, refers to nature-based solutions, like wetlands that can absorb rain water, or oyster reefs that can reinforce the shoreline and help knock down storm waves.


CHRIS DESCHERER: But the other great thing about green infrastructure, of course, is that there are other benefits associated with it.


HOST: This is Chris Descherer, here at the Southern Environmental Law Center. He’s based in our Charleston, South Carolina office. We talked to him during quarantine, over Zoom.


CHRIS: You know wetlands provide recreation opportunities, you know, habitat. They purify our drinking water. Whereas if you think about just like a wall or gray infrastructure, oftentimes those are just a single-minded approach to trying to solve one problem.


HOST: And a wall is not just a wall. It also needs gates to allow access to both sides, and a pumping station to get the water that falls inside the protected area out. Otherwise, the wall acts like a bathtub. The flood wall in Norfolk, for instance, has 5 separate gates, and a pumping system that can remove nearly 100,000 gallons of water per minute from the downtown area.


CHRIS: You know, anything mechanical can break down over time. So there’s a huge operation and maintenance cost associated with gray infrastructure. Green infrastructure, on the other hand, you don’t typically see those same types of costs.


HOST: Gray versus green may seem like kind of an academic concept if you’re not a flood nerd, but it’s a BIG deal. As our cities along the coast make decisions about how best to protect people and property from rising seas, the choice between gray and green infrastructure will matter – not just in terms of cost and overall effectiveness, but also in terms of liveability.


CHRIS: Really who wants to look at a pumping station or a concrete wall? Wouldn’t you much prefer to, you know, look at oyster reefs or wet lands that’s much more in keeping with the environment that you actually decided to live in?


HOST: I can’t imagine anyone in Norfolk wants to live in a fortress walled off from the water they love, and Kyle Spencer agrees, So he says the city is trying to strike a balance.


CLAUDINE: What would you say the split is?


KYLE:  It’s at least 50/50, but we’re trying to do more green than gray, really. You know, the less of this we do, it also is less maintenance, right? So we’ve got to come in and patch this thing up …




KYLE: … to keep it up to standards.


HOST: The wall has to meet FEMA’s standards, in order to lower flood insurance rates for properties on the protected side. But now, thanks to sea level rise, FEMA says the wall has to be made taller, and the Army Corps of Engineers says it needs to be made longer, growing from half a mile to more than FIVE MILES.


KYLE: So it can protect flooding within a watershed that won’t like, wrap around and flood behind it.


HOST: Extending the wall is just one of the many recommendations that the Army Corps recently made for Norfolk. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which caused $70 BILLION dollars in damages, Congress asked the Corps to study storm risk in Norfolk and in eight other high-priority coastal cities. Those three-year, three-million-dollar studies are now yielding massive reports called Coastal Storm Risk Management Plans. And when I say massive, I mean massive. If you include the appendices — Norfolk’s report comes in at a whopping two thousand five hundred pages. Seriously, there are five solid pages just describing the different types of soil found in the city! But even with all that detail, the solution the Corps is recommending entails mostly gray infrastructure. Walls and pumps and tide gates that MAY protect Norfolk from storm surge for the next 50 to 100 years, but which will likely do very little to address nuisance flooding. And the plan will cost a small fortune.


DOUG BEAVER: 1.4 to 1.7 billion dollars for all of the projects that were identified in the Coastal Storm Risk Management Plan.


HOST: That’s Doug Beaver, the city’s Chief Resilience Officer and Kyle’s boss.


DOUG: The challenge is funding it all and it’s quite difficult. If you replicate those costs in New York and Charleston and Miami and Norfolk, the billions become trillions of dollars.


HOST: The city is hoping to split the cost with the Army Corps, which generally pays 65% of projects it constructs. Congress allocates the Corps about $2 billion dollars per year for this purpose. But with a $98 billion dollar backlog of green-lit projects, getting a piece of that money will be tough, and now – in the midst of a pandemic – even tougher.


DOUG: This is where you want to come spend your money. Why would you go somewhere else?


HOST: In that competition for funds, Doug Beaver thinks Norfolk has a compelling case to make, in part because the world’s largest naval base is here.


DOUG: The 59 warships and submarines that are there will need to continue to operate out of there. So we know that there’s a center of gravity in Norfolk that we will protect, the state will protect, and the federal government will protect.


HOST: Norfolk has another advantage as well. It’s not waiting to tackle sea level rise. Back in 2014, it was the second city in the country – third in the world! –  to hire a full-time Chief Resilience Officer. Since then, city leaders have completed an overhaul of zoning ordinances to help flood-proof most new development. And they’ve instituted the “resilient penny” – a one cent real estate tax hike  – to help pay for flood projects.


DOUG: We’re not going to just sit back and let this happen to us. We’re going to take bite-size chunks at this large problem. And Norfolk has its challenges. Almost 1 in 5 of our residents live at or below the poverty level.


HOST: We talked to Doug Beaver for a long time — almost 2 and a half hours — and one very popular buzzword kept popping up with respect to adapting to sea level rise.


DOUG: Challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, challenge, it’s a challenge …


HOST: Obviously Doug works for the city, so part of his job is to be kind of a cheerleader for it, but he seems genuine when he says THIS about sea level rise:


DOUG: It’s not only a challenge, but it is an opportunity when we look to redevelop these communities, make them better, make them be able to live with water, rather than hear the stories of, you know, folks falling into, you know, water that’s smelly and unclean, so I think it is an opportunity.


HOST: We’re talking to Doug in a conference room with a huge map on the wall.


DOUG: This is all public housing. This is public housing and this is public housing …


HOST: It shows an aerial view of the St. Paul’s Quadrant, which includes Marquitta’s neighborhood, plus two other public housing communities, bordered on one side by Tidewater Drive.


DOUG:  And this road will flood quite significantly. So what we’re going to …


CLAUDINE: This major road here? And this is like how many lanes?


DOUG: There’s three lanes on each side, so six lanes across.


CLAUDINE: And this floods?


DOUG:  Correct. Here in particular off of Tidewater, this will become a park.


HOST: As part of the St. Paul’s redevelopment project, more than half of Tidewater Gardens will become a 26-acre park called the “Blue/Greenway.” To create that, the city will be “daylighting” the creek that was originally filled in here. Daylighting is a really cool concept. Basically, it means the city will be bringing the creek back to the surface, removing the pavement and pipes and culverts that covered and redirected it. Like some of the most innovative green infrastructure, the Blue/Greenway will provide both recreation and stormwater management.


DOUG: And many communities are doing similar things along waterways that they’ll retreat during high flood events and then when it’s not, they’re able to go in and use that as an amenity to live and thrive near the water.


HOST: In addition to the Blue/Greenway, the neighborhood will incorporate other green infrastructure elements like bioswales. They’re essentially roadside gardens. But that’s only one element of the planned redevelopment of St. Pauls. Over the next ten to fifteen years, all three public housing communities here will be raized — raized as in bulldozed, not lifted. They’ll be replaced with a brand new, flood-resilient, mixed-use, mixed-income community.



ANCHORMAN: New tonight, moving out and up …


HOST: Here’s a local news story about a meeting the city held in 2018 to show the plans to residents.


ANCHORMAN: We have our most detailed look to date of what the future of downtown Norfolk could look like revealed just hours ago is what a person could see in what is currently the St. Paul’s housing project.


HOST: Plans for the new community show lots of trees, townhomes with porches, restaurants with outdoor seating under bright red umbrellas.


DOUG: (laughing) Artists renderings are very nice and that’s the goal that we hope to achieve.


HOST: Norfolk actually won a $30 million dollar federal grant to help kick off the Tidewater Gardens redevelopment project. It’s part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Choice Neighborhood Initiative” — which is meant to help “transform” neighborhoods with distressed public housing. Certainly that describes the flooded communities here in St. Paul’s. Norfolk was one of the three cities to win a grant.



BEN CARSON: Newport News, No-fork, New-fork, and Omaha, Nebraska are the only cities that earned a Choice Neighborhood Grant so far, out of dozens. (clapping)


HOST: That’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. And he’s not the first person to mispronounce Norfolk, by the way.


BEN CARSON: And let me add to those families and neighborhoods who have persisted through the hard times, we’re going to help see that you are not displaced by the good times.


HOST: In a city with the country’s sixth highest eviction rate, and a long waiting list for housing vouchers, displacement IS a concern. Residents of St. Paul’s will be given the option of moving to other public housing communities in Norfolk, or taking a Section 8 housing voucher and moving to private housing – wherever they can find it.




LAFEETAH BYRUM: Through this redevelopment project, they are driving — forcibly driving — residents out of the city of Norfolk and inadvertently accelerating segregation and displacement.


HOST: That’s local activist Lafeetah Byrum speaking to a local reporter at a small sidewalk protest outside City Hall back in January. She was there with about 30 other protesters, including lawyers who are suing the city on behalf of St. Paul residents.



SARAH BLACK: … and it is nothing but racist in effect …


HOST: And that’s Sarah Black from the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia.


SARAH BLACK: They’re reconcentrating poverty to other poor neighborhoods within the city for those people fortunate enough to remain within the city.


HOST: Their concern is that though the neighborhood will gain about as many housing units as it loses, only one-third of the new units will be reserved for low-income tenants. That is, of course, the point of A mixed-income community, but it means that many of the 4,200 residents currently living in the St. Paul’s area will be leaving permanently. And though current residents will get first dibs on the new low-income units if they sign up now, it may be years before they can move back. In the interim, everyone has to go … trusting that the city will keep its promises.


CLAUDINE: Has it been a challenge to make people feel like they will be safe and made whole regardless of what changes are being made around them?


DOUG: That, that’s a great point. I think in the history of Norfolk, we’ve seen some neighborhoods where we’ve done some redevelopment that maybe we haven’t gotten that right. So that, that trust is something that needs to be won on a daily basis, on a person-to-person basis, and we understand that.


HOST: In fact, because St. Paul residents didn’t have a lot of faith in Norfolk’s own Housing Authority, the city hired an out-of-state non-profit to offer support services through a program they’re calling “People First.”



SPOKESPERSON: I want to take a moment and introduce you to the People First team. (WOOOO!)


HOST: “People First” case managers will help St. Paul residents with relocation, job training, credit repair and other needs.


SPOKESPERSON: Now these folks will be pounding the pavement, going door to door telling you about People First. And you know how you’ll recognize them? Because of their matching shirts. (WOOOO!)


HOST: Matching shirts aside, the city seems to recognize something that will be crucial for any municipality when it comes to making huge investments to adapt to sea level rise: community buy-in. The city has been talking about this project for 15 years and hosting community meetings about it for almost as long. Here’s more of that first local news story.



REPORTER: Ten on Your Side has been covering the transformation since the very beginning and at every meeting, what it’s going to look like, isn’t the most asked question. The most asked question from the residents is asking ‘when must I move’?


HOST: As president of the Tidewater Gardens Tenants Association, Marquitta White actually hears that question a lot.


MARQUITTA WHITE: People pull on me all the time.


HOST: She’s been deeply involved in the project. The city even flew her to Atlanta to see a similar model community.


MARQUITTA: When you go to mixed income communities, the feeling is different. It just felt safe and there’s a hundred percent graduation rate. And it’s an excellent blueprint. They really care about the people.


HOST: As for the lawsuit, Marquitta’s not endorsing it, but she does see an upside to it.


MARQUITTA: I’m kinda glad that this little fake lawsuit thing is really happening because it make you guys seal the gaps. What are we doing wrong? It give you an opportunity to get it together. So it was almost like that was a win-win situation.


HOST: As the aging sewer system and flooded roads attest, the redevelopment of this 70-year old public housing community is long overdue. And rebuilding on this land in a more resilient way to respond to sea level rise will likely yield a healthier, more liveable, more walkable, and more beautiful community … for those who get to live in it. As for Marquitta …


MARQUITTA: I don’t know what’s going to happen in that timeframe. But I did put in my paperwork, the only way I would come back if I could purchase a piece of property here, you gotta be smart. But I’m not coming back to be on Section Eight or to rent or nothing. I’m coming to own.


HOST: Marquitta had hoped for more time to finish her degree before having to move But, she says, living here in public housing was only ever a stepping stone for her and her daughters, so she’ll manage.


MARQUITTA: I wish the best for the city of Norfolk, but I gotta go. I’m ready to go.


HOST: The timeline for the Norfolk redevelopment project has shifted a lot  – most recently due to the pandemic – so it’s not entirely clear when Marquitta or Ms. Marie will have to move. But this is very likely Ms. Marie’s last summer in the home she’s lived in for more than 60 years.


MARIE WEBB: Well, I ain’t ready, but I ain’t got no choice.


CLAUDINE: Are you not so happy about it?


MARIE: No, cuz of my flowers, but, no.


MARQUITTA: Lord, don’t make her cry. Look at her, don’t …


CLAUDINE: Oh no, I didn’t, no, I didn’t …


HOST: It turns out that while there ARE other public housing communities here in Norfolk that Ms. Marie could move to, none will allow her to dig a garden.


MARIE: Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Can’t do that.


HOST: So, Ms. Marie is looking at leaving the plants she calls “her babies” behind.


MARIE: (singing) Going to miss my flowers, going to miss my babies. But you gotta go, you gotta go.


HOST: As with many adaptations to sea level rise, there are trade-offs with this project. Small ones for people like Marquitta who has to speed up her timeline a bit. Big ones for people like Ms. Marie, who has to surrender her home of sixty years and her garden for the greater good.


MARIE: But we blessed.


CLAUDINE: Ms. Marie, thank you for your time.


MARIE: Thank you all too.


CLAUDINE: Thank you for showing me your garden.


MARIE: And you all be careful out there!


HOST: By the way, the row of apartments where Ms. Marie lives now will actually become part of that new park meant to hold and absorb floodwater and beautify the new neighborhood.




HOST: Next time on Broken Ground … we head to Charleston, South Carolina, where flooding throughout the city – and in the hospital district – is taking a toll.


JENI HELMLY: If you’re a night shift nurse, you worry when you lay down to sleep. Do I need to wake up early? Do I need to go to work early? Am I going to be able to get to work?


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 Wavy TV, 13 News Now, WTKR News 3, the Norfolk Historical Society, and News of the Day on British Pathe TV. Thanks for listening.