Broken Ground | Season 3 | Episode 5

Uncharted Territory

In Norfolk, Virginia scientists battling sea level rise enlist residents to help collect data that could help the city better understand its rising tides and flooding problems.

Episode Transcript

In Norfolk, Virginia, scientists battling sea level rise enlist residents to help collect data that could help the city better understand its rising tides and flooding problems.




By Emily Richardson-Lorente


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: People are oftentimes curious and I’ll tell them what we’re doing.


HOST: When Margie Mulholland collects samples of the floodwater here in Norfolk, she wears tall boots, black gloves, and she carries a cooler full of sample bottles. She’s kind of hard to miss.


MARGIE: And sometimes people will ask me what’s in the waters and I’ve told.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: You said there’s fecal matter in the water?




CLAUDINE: And they’re like that’s cool.


MARGIE: They’ve continued on doing what they were doing.


CLAUDINE: Oh, okay.


MARGIE: Because people don’t want to know. Nah nah nah nah nah!


CLAUDINE: I’d rather know if I’m walking in poop water.


MARGIE: Me too. Me too.




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 previous episodes, we’ve talked about the city of Norfolk’s efforts to tackle sea level rise. But – as in Charleston – it’s not just the city, or the state, or the Army Corps fighting the flooding here. Regular folks are also doing what they can to help their city survive.




HOST: In this episode, we’re going to hear about two citizen science projects. Citizen science is what it sounds like: it’s folks – not necessarily experts – contributing to research. One project here in Norfolk enlists volunteers to help measure the muck marinating inside the floodwater. The other crowdsources flood data during the highest high tides of the year. Broken Ground producer Emily Richardson-Lorente –who’s usually behind the scenes – headed to Norfolk early one Sunday morning to catch the king tide.


SIRI: Keep right onto Llewellyn Avenue.


EMILY RICHARDSON-LORENTE: After everything we’ve learned about nuisance flooding in Norfolk, I was a little nervous about navigating through the city at high tide. But turns out I only had to avoid one flooded road …


SIRI: Proceed to the route.


EMILY: … and it was easy enough to take a detour through a McDonald’s parking lot.


SIRI: Proceed to the route.


EMILY: I’m headed to a place called the Hague. Here, a finger of the Elizabeth River pokes deep into the neighborhood. The Chrysler Museum of Art sits at what would be the fingernail. And a private school sits along the right side. This is a spot that’s so frequently inundated with water, that it’s become a sort of poster child for flooding. So I have to admit I was kind of excited to see the “king tide,” one of the highest tides of the year. Except it wasn’t. Turns out the tides had been bigger two weeks earlier, and — as I learned later —  would be bigger the next day. But it still looked like a lot of water to me!


QAREN JACKLICH: You know, you always see water here at the Hague. At high tide there’s always water.


EMILY: That’s Qaren Jaklich, the volunteer coordinator for this third annual “Catch the King.”


QAREN: Our tide is not as exciting for some of our mappers. Some of our mappers are like, “I’m kinda disappointed.”


EMILY: The tides were bigger at the first annual “Catch the King” event in 2017. That event actually made it into the Guiness Book of World Records for the most contributions to an environmental survey.” 60,000 flood measurements collected by more than 700 volunteers, all using a smartphone app called “Sea Level Rise.”


SKIP STILES: Another pin, another pin …


EMILY: Skip Stiles is showing me how the app works, as we walk along the edge of the flood water. Every five feet or so, he’s tapping a button on his phone to drop what’s called a “geolocation pin” on a virtual map.


SKIP: These pins, then – here’s another pin – begin to form a line that marks where the edge of the water is.


EMILY: Skip leads a nonprofit called Wetlands Watch, which helped start this annual crowdsourcing event. He says one point of measuring the king tide today is that this twice-a-year high tide gives us a glimpse of the future.


SKIP: This is where the hightide will get twice a month in 2050. And you can see it starts moving up well into the neighborhood.


EMILY: All of the data collected through the Sea Level Rise app will go to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to help the scientists there build better flood models.


SKIP: In our outreach work on sea level rise, we discovered what is common sense: that people knew more about where it flooded in their neighborhoods than anyone else did. So we thought, well, how do we collect that information on where it floods?


EMILY: Skip says he and his colleagues talked to officials in a few cities, all of whom said they’d love to know where their worst flooding hotspots were, but that they couldn’t afford to hire consultants at, like, $150 bucks an hour to get the data. So, Skip and his partners came up with the idea of using a smart phone app and volunteers to collect real-time flood measurements.


SKIP: The data that’s collected is for free and we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people walking around all over Eastern Virginia doing the same thing.


EMILY: The volunteers mapping here at the Hague, include a group of teenagers from the private school next door. At the moment, I guess they’re taking a break, because a few of them are parading single file along the nearly submerged bulkhead wall that separates the land from the river.


EMILY: Hi everybody!


STUDENTS: Hello. Hi. Hello!


EMILY: But they’re happy to introduce themselves.


STUDENTS: Addie Brinkely, Charlotte Stillman, Jen Beckner, Makayla Adams, Connor Stein, Keelan Hogan, Ryan Nicholson.


EMILY: They’re all ninth graders at the Hague School here, volunteering as part of their environmental sciences curriculum.


STUDENT: Today, we are mapping the tide, the king tide.


EMILY: Um, so, alright, so I have never been here before. What is normally here when it’s not flooded?


STUDENT: (sarcastic) Land!


EMILY: Okay, maybe it was a dumb question, RYAN NICHOLSON. But in my defense, there is clearly a road here under several inches of water. Apparently it’s called South Mowbray Arch. But I guess seeing it underwater is nothing special for kids who are here 5 days a week.


STUDENT: Yeah, 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. I feel like the king tide is really just another flood cause, like, I’ve seen higher.


EMILY: So you’re not that impressed by this?


STUDENT: No, I’m not.


EMILY: The building these kids attend school in is actually a former church, built back in 1902. The Unitarian congregation that had been here since the 70’s moved last year, in part because the constant flooding was messing with their parishioners ability to get to services. Despite its prime location in this chichi neighborhood next to the art museum, the building’s future was up in the air for a while. But then the private school moved in.


PAUL WARREN: I think we are the poster for all of the events like this, but in reality it’s because these are two of the most beautiful buildings in the area.


EMILY: Paul Warren is headmaster of the new school in the old church, and says he’s not too worried about the water’s impact here in the Hague, despite the attention it receives.


PAUL: People come to our open houses and they say, what do you think about flooding? And we don’t think that’s an issue here. There are tidal issues, there are issues with drains. But, uh, from our perspective, uh, if anything, it’s kinda like snow. It’s more beautiful sometimes.


EMILY: You feel like the Hague gets a bad rap when it comes to flooding, then?


PAUL: I think it does. I think it’s overestimated.


EMILY: Paul says he DOES think the infrastructure issues need to be fixed — a failing bulkhead wall, inadequate storm drains. But as long as the water doesn’t reach the school building itself, he’s not losing sleep over it.


PAUL: Ask us in 15 years or 10 years, we’ll have a more definitive answer. Right now, it’s, uh, I would say, a reason to pay attention. A reason to plan.


EMILY: Not everybody here today is quite so relaxed about the flooding.


GARRY HARRIS: This is serious. This is serious. It doesn’t matter whether or not you live adjacent to a body of water or not, sea level rise is going to affect you.


EMILY: Garry Harris came from Portsmouth to volunteer. It’s one of the seven cities that make up the Hampton Roads region.


PAUL: When this rises, it rises in the entire region and all those things which are connected — the services which are connected, the jobs which are connected, the transportation which is connected — if one piece of the system is broken here, it’s gonna affect the system over here and such, so everybody’s going to be affected.


EMILY: Garry may feel a much greater sense of urgency about sea level rise than Headmaster Paul does, but they likely agree on one thing – it’s not too late to adapt.


PAUL: Sea level rise in this area is going to be constant. It’s going to be drastic. But it is going to be predictable and measurable as well. That means that between now and 2100, we have the opportunity to take some actions.


EMILY: But who’s on the hook for taking that action? I figure the kids at the Hague School are going to spend a lot more time wrestling with that question than we adults are, so I asked them.


EMILY: Who do you think should fix this? Whose responsibility is this?


STUDENT: The government because, like, they’re responsible for, like, building walls …


STUDENT: The government could help fix this, but the people could be more motivated to fix this.


STUDENT: The people are emitting all of the carbon dioxide and they’re all the ones driving the cars. So if we don’t make a change, then it’s just kind of our fault and the mess that we’ve made.


STUDENT: The people don’t have the ability to, like, make laws and, like, put a carbon tax or, like, implement nuclear power or something like that because we don’t have that power, but we do have the power to elect people into office who can make change. So I think that is something.


EMILY: While these teenagers are doing their part, Qaren Jacklich is gently chastising a trio of little girls who are wading shoeless through the flood water here while their parents volunteer.


QAREN: Hey guys, just so you know, this water is actually pretty filthy. So when you go home, you’re definitely gonna want to shower with soap, okay?


EMILY: When I suggested to Qaren that she was kinda, maybe sorta taking the fun out of this whole flood day, she said …


QAREN: You know, when I was a kid it was okay to do this, but you know, if you’re walking around mapping, there’s plenty of stuff we cannot see. And one of our sister projects, you know, Measure the Muck, they’re going around taking water samples of this and they are finding some pretty awful things in the water. It’s just not safe.


EMILY: But just as Qaren said that, the three little girls turned back around and waded deeper into the floodwater.


QAREN: (sigh) You can say so much.


HOST: This is Claudine again. So about this Measure the Muck … Emily and I met the woman who started it when we headed to Norfolk together a few months after Catch the King.


EMILY: Hi Margie! How are you?


MARGIE MULHOLLAND: How are you guys doing? Good, good.




HOST: A few years ago – before Catch the King – Margie Mulholland was helping test out the Sea Level Rise app, with her husband Skip Stiles. As she was wandering the shoreline measuring the tide, she was struck over and over by what she WASN’T measuring.


MARGIE: You can see there’s just a lot of crap there.


HOST: “Crap” like leaf litter and bits of garbage that add harmful nutrients to the water. That disturbed Margie because she’s an oceanography professor at Old Dominion University here, where she studies algae blooms in the Chesapeake Bay.


MARGIE: Every year there’s a dead zone that develops in the Chesapeake Bay. But if we add more nutrients and get more algae, that dead zone gets more intense.


HOST: A decade ago, the EPA put the Bay on a sort of ‘nutrient diet’ to help restore its health. But a diet that didn’t factor in all the stuff that nuisance flooding washes into the waterways.


MARGIE: I guess it’s sorta like cheating on your diet and if I eat it when I’m standing up, it doesn’t count. Well, right now it’s not being counted because no one knows how to count it because there aren’t these sampling programs.


HOST: So Margie cobbled together her OWN water sampling program called “Measure the Muck,” which piggybacks on “Catch the King.” For each twice-annual king tide, Margie recruits small groups of volunteers – mostly high school students – to help.


MARGIE: We send them out with coolers and sample kits, so they collect the samples, bring them back to us at ODU and then we do the processing of them.


HOST: With the first measurements Margie’s team took around the Lafayette River back in 2017, they made a startling discovery.


MARGIE: We calculated that the entire annual allocation of nitrogen from runoff is delivered during a single blue sky flooding event.


HOST: Blue sky flooding that is happening with increasing frequency — once a week, on average, according to Margie.


MARGIE: If you’re not counting a major load, how do you hope to achieve restoration targets?


HOST: The sampling continues on a smaller scale year round with the help of one of Margie’s grad students.


ALFONSO MACIAS-TAPIA: I am Alfonso Macias-Tapia and I’m doing the Phd in oceanography at Old Dominion University.


HOST: Slowly but surely, Margie and Alfonso are compiling a data set that doesn’t exist anywhere else, but could impact how flood water is viewed and treated all along the coast.


EMILY: So, where do you want to go first?


HOST: On this day, they’re going to show us a few of what they call their “sentinel sites.” These are the nine spots around town that they usually sample when it floods.


MARGIE: First place is what? Myrtle Park?


ALFONSO: Um-hum.


HOST: Myrtle Park, where a couple dozen well-kept, middle class homes form a kind of horseshoe around a finger of the Lafayette River.


MARGIE: Very low lying, only a couple of feet above sea level.


HOST: Myrtle Park is considered an “adaptation area” – an area where retreat may be necessary. The city established these areas in its “Vision 2100” plan, a plan that  focused on what Norfolk will look like 80 years from now, when the waters around the city are predicted to be between four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half feet higher than they were in the year 2000.


MARGIE: Almost at every high tide, especially when there’s a new or a full moon, it will flood and the streets will be impassable.


HOST: And apparently that’s true, with or without rain! So I have to say,  even though I know that nuisance flooding is sometimes called “blue sky flooding” or “sunny day flooding,” it is really hard to imagine that these streets that we’re standing on can just fill up from a high tide on an otherwise dry day. But Alfonso has brought along a laptop full of photos they’ve taken while sampling at high tide.


ALFONSO: This is the place that we’re standing at.


EMILY: Holy moly.


CLAUDINE: I mean that’s a lot of water.


MARGIE: Yeah, yeah.


HOST: The picture we’re looking at shows at least a foot of water in the intersection where we’re currently standing.


MARGIE: The water here can be over the knees because it’ll get into my boots, you know, and sometimes it can be even waist-high.


CLAUDINE: So how many times a year do these families see this amount of water? You think? Once in a great while?


MARGIE: No … I’m trying to think of how many times in September alone it was probably five or six times.


CLAUDINE: This high!?






MARGIE: So it’s quite often.


HOST: And this is a decade AFTER the city raised the roads here 18 inches. And SIX years after it removed the failing bulkhead wall along the water’s edge and converted the muddy neighborhood park back into wetlands.


CLAUDINE: This was their attempt to absorb the water?




HOST: All together, that’s more than one-and-a-quarter MILLION dollars invested in this ONE PART of this ONE NEIGHBORHOOD — and that’s not even including the cost of lifting homes here.


MARGIE: This house was raised by FEMA.


CLAUDINE: Wow. I can see that.


MARGIE: They were raising houses, that house over there was raised.


CLAUDINE: I want to say like, of the 10 houses that I’m looking at near this walkway, close to the water, half of them are probably raised. That one’s — currently, they’re putting it up on stilts. That’s kind of interesting to see, like, how they do it. Imagine like wooden pallets stacked on top of each other, um, holding up the house. I mean it really does look like one of my daughters, Lego creations. It looks kind of crazy.


MARGIE: Yeah. (laughing)


HOST: The house that’s perhaps lifted the highest here — one sitting on, like, a full ten feet of cinder blocks, basically a whole new empty floor— is not one of the ones closest to the river. But it IS right next to a storm drain.


MARGIE: The water actually can come up through the drains and fill the streets up before filling up some of the grassy areas.


HOST: Look around and you see patches of lawn that are basically just sand now, because the floodwater has killed off all the grass.


MARGIE: That’s another big problem is it’s salt water and it’s really damaging to cars.


HOST: Though Margie and Alfonso are primarily testing for nitrogen and phosphorus — nutrients that can cause algae blooms — they know there’s a LOT of other stuff in this water.


MARGIE: We found actually high concentrations of enterococcus.


HOST: That’s a scientific word for poop.


MARGIE: We don’t know if it’s human or not. It’s likely due to ducks, dogs, uh, gulls.


CLAUDINE: You said the water can get into your boots. How, how much would that gross you out if the water got into your boots?


MARGIE: Oh, I go shower right when I get home because I know some children that have played in the water with open sores that have gotten infections and wound up in the hospital.


HOST: Margie is concerned enough about the potential health impacts of this floodwater, that she’s written a proposal to the National Science Foundation. If she gets the grant, they’ll work with the school of public health at Old Dominion University to survey residents about any health issues that might arise from contact with the flood water.


MARGIE: I would expect things like gastro if somehow people ingest the water.


HOST: Gastrointestinal problems like vomiting and diarrhea.


MARGIE: I would expect rashes and skin irritations because there’s also a lot of parked cars around here. So there’s a lot of oil products.


HOST: But that’s not the only problem. This flood water washes over driveways and parking lots and through garages and garden sheds …


MARGIE: We don’t know the whole suite of contaminants we’re introducing because pretty much it’s everything on the landscape.


EMILY: Do these people have any reason to know that the water’s filthy?


MARGIE: No. They have no way to know that the water is filthy. And we’re still in the process of publishing among the first papers doing something like this. I think someone in Florida measured just the enterococcus associated with flood waters.


ALFONSO: And then he got sued by the city of Miami, so …


HOST: We looked into this, and it was actually the city of Miami Beach, and the THREAT of a lawsuit. Here’s what happened: The Miami Herald quoted a scientist who said that the water being pumped out during king tides – you know, the water that tourists take their shoes off and wade through – had more than 600 TIMES the allowable amount of enterococcus. The mayor was so upset, he demanded a retraction and hauled that scientist in front of the city council, accusing him of using sloppy science to win a city contract for water testing. The accusations were bunk, and it goes to show you that some cities may not be happy with the work scientists are doing to shed light on their flooding problem.


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


CLAUDINE: Have you seen that getting better or worse? Like do you think people are understanding and learning that it is not the best thing to be out in this floodwater?


MARGIE: I think it’s getting worse because now that we’re having these flood days, you know it’s a day off school so it’s a party. And they treat it like a snow day. So when it snows you go out and play in it. Well guess what? When it floods, you go out and play in it.


HOST: While Margie Mulholland works to document what’s IN the flood water, Skip Stiles is advocating for an orderly retreat FROM it. As Executive Director of Wetlands Watch, he’s pushing for policies that will protect not just the wetlands, but the people as well. Emily met up with him after the Catch the King event wound down.


EMILY: Skip suggested we meet in Edgewater. It’s one of the wealthier residential neighborhoods being inundated by rising waters here in Norfolk. And it’s beautiful. Big houses, wide porches, and gorgeous river views. Since it’s Sunday, people are out and about – jogging, pushing their baby strollers, walking their dogs. But this IS one of the neighborhoods the city has designated an “adaptation area.”


SKIP STILES: It used to be a wetland and it’ll be a wetland again in a (laughing) in a few decades.


EMILY: Skip and I are standing in a soggy park wedged between the road and the water. By now, the morning’s king tide has receded, but there are still pools of standing water here in the grass, and big patches of sandy soil. There’s also a couple of benches. And if you were up for sort of squelching through the mud to get to them, you could sit and enjoy the view of the Lafayette River inlet.


SKIP: But see, look at this. I mean this right here, this, this plant that’s popped up …


EMILY: As a wetlands expert, Skip noticed something in the grass that I completely missed.


SKIP: That’s Iva, that’s a marsh plant. These are um, asters these are, these are all marsh plants here, in what used to be just Bermuda grass, just a regular lawn.


EMILY: When Wetlands Watch first formed in 1999, Skip says the group was focused on protecting Norfolk’s remaining wetlands from development. But 7 or 8 years in, they realized that sea level rise was going to wipe out a huge portion – as much as 80% – of those wetlands, with or without development.


SKIP: The wetlands will try to move uphill, but if there’s something in the way, like this bulkhead or that road, the wetlands will drown in place.


HOST: Hey, this is Claudine. I wanted to pop in here for a minute. Skip is talking about something called “marsh migration.” It’s one of the topics that here at the Southern Environmental Law Center we think doesn’t get nearly enough love. So I wanted to talk to my colleague Jenny Brennan about it.


JENNY BRENNAN: Here we go.


CLAUDINE: Can you hear me?






HOST: Jenny is a science and policy associate in our Charleston, South Carolina office. She was so pumped to talk about marsh migration that she literally shimmied her shoulders during our Zoom call when I brought it up.


JENNY: I’m excited you asked about it because it’s an issue that I feel like isn’t that well known, but it’s really gonna be important adapting to climate change.


HOST: She says marsh grass has adapted to living at pretty specific water levels. If it’s too deep in the water, it drowns.


JENNY: And if that was the end of the story, it would be really sad, but there’s this really great natural adaptation mechanism that marshes have built in. The marsh grasses basically send out new shoots through their roots and over time, this results in the creation of new marsh space, And so the grasses come up and you know, they’ll come up through trees.


HOST: Trees that are slowly poisoned – sometimes even bleached white – by the encroaching salt water.


JENNY: You see these dead tree trunks standing in a field of marsh grass. They call them ghost forests.


HOST: Honestly, if you’ve never seen a ghost forest, google it. It’s one of THE most visually striking indicators of sea level rise. But, as Jenny tells us, it’s also proof of adaptation.


JENNY: So yes, there are areas that are going to be submerged with sea level rise, but there’s new marsh habitat that is created through this process. And that’s marsh migration.


HOST: And that migrating marsh can do everything wetlands NORMALLY do. Absorb flood water and carbon dioxide, filter pollutants, weaken storm surge. And it can maintain some of the ecological diversity of the marsh ecosystem, providing habitat for all sorts of creatures. In fact, Jenny says fully THREE QUARTERS of the fish species along the southeast coast spend at least PART of their life cycle in tidal marshes like this. So, it sounds good, right? Like the wetlands will heal themselves?


JENNY: That’s not the end of the story, unfortunately.


HOST: Well, not so much.


JENNY: People have introduced barriers to this adaptation mechanism. We’ve built roads, we’ve built houses, um, we’ve put bulkheads to protect our property from the water. And as a result, we’ve already blocked it off. It’s going to be really crucial for us to leave space for these marshes to come inland, otherwise we lose this entire ecosystem.


SKIP STILES: This bulkhead will fail.


EMILY: Back in the soggy park in Edgewater, Skip Stiles is sizing up just the kind of bulkhead wall that Jenny Brennan mentioned.


SKIP: It’s starting to break, yeah, this low spot where all the marsh grass is.


EMILY: When bulkhead walls like this were originally constructed here and in the Hague and in Myrtle Park and along many of Norfolk’s other riverside neighborhoods, they had one job. And increasingly, they’re failing at it because of sea level rise.


SKIP: On days when the wind blows out of the North for a couple of days and the water will be across this road. This whole intersection is underwater. All these houses over here, their front yards are full of water and these park benches are, um, you can only get to them with hip waders.


EMILY: Look around at this beautiful neighborhood, and you can tell that – just like Myrtle Park – many of the homes here have already been raised.


SKIP: Out of today’s flood plain. The problem is going to be as time goes on, the flood plain’s gonna move and these houses aren’t gonna move, so.


EMILY: In the meantime, Wetlands Watch is working with Norfolk and other cities in Hampton Roads to help them develop plans to slow and then hopefully reverse the growth along the shoreline.


SKIP: The big problem for cities though is shoreline property. Look at these houses. This is the guts of the tax base.


EMILY: Skip and his wife Margie have lived here in Norfolk for 20 years, about two miles from where we’re standing right now. As a resident, he says he dreads what he calls a “disorderly disinvestment,” when everybody picks up and leaves all at once.


SKIP: Perhaps precipitated by some storm event. Perhaps precipitated by somebody looking around and going, huh, I don’t want to be the last person in this neighborhood to try to sell my home. And I see five of them for sale. So I’m outta here.


EMILY: But, if the orange construction cones and the little excavator parked along the river here are any indication, the neighborhood’s not retreating without a fight.


SKIP: The city is putting in a backflow preventer to keep the stormwater from going the wrong way up the stormwater pipes. And then I just found out that they’re going to put a berm there to keep the water from running into their front yards.


EMILY: The homeowners are going to do that?


SKIP: Yeah, they’re paying for it themselves. All the people along this reach are gonna pay for it.


EMILY: Homeowner-funded projects like this are likely to become more common thanks to something called a ‘special service district.’


CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS: Ms. Doyle. Aye. Mrs. Graves. Aye.


EMILY: The Norfolk City Council approved the idea in 2019. Here’s Councilwoman Andria McClellan.


ANDRIA MCCLELLAN: This is a great opportunity for us to let the citizens help participate in some of our flooding infrastructure. I vote aye.


MAN: Thank you.


EMILY: A special service district basically means that a group of residents — like the homeowners along the inlet here — can get together and agree to pay higher property taxes in exchange for the city working on, quote, “projects that would primarily benefit private property owners.” If that’s a thing that makes you go hmmmmm, because it sounds kinda like rich people can buy flood protection while the rest of the city drowns, Claudine and I had a similar reaction when the city’s Chief Resilience Officer first told us about the program.


DOUG BEAVER: That goes somewhat against what you were talking about, social equity …


EMILY: Remember Doug Beaver? In earlier episodes, he gave us the inside scoop on how the city is using HUD funding to reimagine several frequently flooded, lower-income and minority neighborhoods. Those projects make him worry less about Special Service Districts benefiting wealthier residents.


DOUG: If we’re leveraging people’s own goodwill and they want to stay in their community and they can put some money toward it, and then we leverage Department of Defense dollars to help us improve our infrastructure …


EMILY: Department of Defense dollars, because Norfolk is home to the largest naval base in the world, which is also being impacted by sea level rise.


DOUG: … and we can leverage HUD dollars for some of the lower income neighborhoods. I think it’s going to take all of those things to make Norfolk thrive.


EMILY: Skip Stiles says he doesn’t necessarily have a problem with special service districts for flooding, but they’re not a long-term solution.


SKIP STILES: It buys you some time. The question is, you know, are we laying the tracks for those hard decisions? And I haven’t seen that yet. Everything sort of assumes that we’ll be able to somehow keep ahead of the water and do these little fixes and deus ex machina, you know, there’ll be some magic solution, but that’s not going to happen for a lot of these neighborhoods. So we’ve got to start thinking about how we get houses and people out of some of these areas and frankly let them go back to wetlands.


EMILY: This looks like a pretty sweet place to live. How do you convince people in a place like this that they need to sacrifice for sea level rise?


SKIP: Uh, I don’t. I can’t knock on their front door and go, “Oh my God, you’re gonna die, it’s sea level rise!” This nice house over here is only a year and a half old. So those people are not gonna leave. So you basically just have to wait for people to come to the conclusion that they need to get out. If you want that person to move, you have to offer them whatever price it takes to get them to move out of that house or else you’ve got to continue to provide police, fire, emergency services, roads.


EMILY: In other words, it’s expensive either way. And there’s another problem.


SKIP: Virginia is a state that’s what they call a buyer beware state. Basically, they don’t give you information on the flood history of a house.


EMILY: Like Georgia and Alabama, Virginia has NO laws requiring home sellers to tell buyers about any flood hazards.


SKIP: You know, if you’re in a crash zone, they’ll tell you. If your house was used as a meth lab, they have to tell you, you know, there’s all these other areas where they have disclosure, but for flooding they don’t.


EMILY: And Skip says it can be surprisingly difficult to tell whether or not a house is prone to flooding — especially for, say, military personnel who may not be familiar with the area or with tide cycles.


SKIP: The other piece of it is, it’ll flood here and you’ll go a block away and it won’t flood because we have such a flat area. It takes only about six inches of elevation to make the difference between flooding and not flooding.


EMILY: But remember the Sea Level Rise app from the beginning of this episode?


SKIP: … another pin, another pin …


EMILY: Skip is hopeful that the data they’re collecting through the app will eventually give people here the street-by-street flood information they need in order to better judge their risk.


SKIP: Ideally in the future, mapping like this will help produce models that’ll tell people, oh, that house floods all the time. Then you’ve got the issue of what do I do if I’m trying to sell my house and this stinking map keeps showing my house is going underwater and I can’t sell it? That’s where this whole thing is going. Uncharted territory.


HOST: Uncharted territory. I know Skip sounds dire here, but while he’s keeping one eye on the real estate market, his boots are also planted firmly on the ground here in Norfolk. And his dedication to his work on sea level rise is absolutely evidence of his optimism that there is a chance Norfolk can deal with its rising water. When we started this season of Broken Ground, we hoped to meet people just like Skip. Folks on the frontlines of climate change here in the south. And that definitely happened. Doug Beaver, Margie Mulholland, their colleagues, all of the volunteers for Catch the King and Measure the Muck. Most of them know they’re fighting an uphill battle when it comes to flooding. But they’re still willing to suit up … to pull on their boots, walk the waterline, and help the community they love better understand what lies ahead.




HOST: Next time on Broken Ground, a post-script. Our podcast team spent ten months working on this season, and, honestly, we’re still sifting through all that we’ve learned. One thing that has struck our team is that there are A LOT of important decisions being made RIGHT NOW when it comes to addressing the fallout of climate change in coastal cities. Decisions that could be really important for these cities in the next 50 years. Join us next time to hear our takeaways.


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. 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!