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Coastal Communities in Virginia Lead the Way on Local Climate Action

“The time to act is now… We cannot afford to do nothing.”

This was the message of Mayor Will Sessoms from Virginia Beach, VA, delivered last Friday at a conference on "Adaptive Planning for Flooding and Coastal Change." Like so many cities along the Atlantic coast, Virginia Beach is at the frontlines of climate change, experiencing impacts like sea-level rise and recurrent coastal flooding. But as we learned at the event, the city and its surrounding communities are emerging as leaders in engaging in initiatives to address these issues.

“We are not as well prepared as we need to be to address the full scope of projected realities in the year 2100” Mayor Sessoms stated, “and we can, and must, make continued improvements.” His message was echoed by a group of bipartisan mayors and state delegates, city planners, legal experts, and university scientists. They stressed that while state and federal governments often struggle to move beyond the political debate of whether manmade climate change is happening, residents of the Tidewater area of Virginia are focused on developing a robust response to rising seas and recurrent coastal flooding.

Mayor Sessoms’ sentiments paralleled the earlier statements of Democratic Mayor Paul Fraim from Norfolk, VA that "[t]his is one of the greatest threats of our lifetime,” and “a threat that we can no longer afford to ignore."

At the Frontlines of Sea-Level Rise

For residents along Virginia's coastline, news of proactive efforts to address the impacts of climate change couldn't come so on enough. The Hampton Roads area – comprised of Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Hampton, and 13 other localities in Southeast Virginia – continues to experience the highest rates of sea-level rise along the entire U.S. East Coast. Recent studies have declared the region as the largest population center in the country at risk from sea-level rise, second only to New Orleans, LA.

Sea level rise threatens not only local communities, but also the United States’ (and the world’s) largest naval base: Naval Station Norfolk. In addition, sea-level rise threatens almost all major military facilities in Hampton Roads, and relocating these facilities would pose a threat to operational readiness and national security.

The Cost of Inaction

City officials in Virginia are all too familiar with the costs of extreme weather and coastal flooding. Over the last two years, 25 extreme weather events each cost taxpayers more than $1 billion. Virginia incurred damages from seven of them. Such events have long-term consequences: in 2003, Hurricane Isabel damaged $925 million worth of insured properties in Virginia alone.

Recent studies from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) have determined that an additional rise in sea levels of three feet along the region’s coast could cost as much as $87 billion in inundated properties. To replace old piers that have already been degraded by sea-level rise, Naval Station Norfolk would need to invest an estimated $460 million. And in Norfolk, city officials expect a total investment of $1 billion will be needed in the coming decades to replace current infrastructure and help make homes and businesses in the city more resilient to the impacts of rising seas and recurrent coastal flooding.

Local Governments Take Action

Fortunately, local governments have chosen to take action toward adapting to sea-level rise and increased coastal flooding. The city of Norfolk has developed a comprehensive, four pronged flooding strategy. In addition, RE.invest Initiative chose Norfolk as part of an eight city collaboration to invest in climate-resilient infrastructure. Officials in Virginia Beach are in the process of finalizing an update to the city’s award-winning 2009 Comprehensive Plan that will continue to prioritize environmental stewardship, coastal flooding & stormwater management, and recurrent flooding & severe repetitive loss.

Local leaders have also engaged citizens to describe the local impacts of climate change. Experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences described the city of Hampton, VA’s efforts to communicate sea-level rise and recurrent flooding as “the example of a locality that has mastered the process of engaging its citizenry and communicating with them about the particular issue.” At last week’s conference, Republican State Delegate Chris Stolle encouraged those in attendance to “please educate, collaborate, and work together with the understanding that it truly does mean that our future is based on the solutions we come up with to those problems.”

Inspiring Greater Climate Action

Local governments in Hampton Roads have shown leadership in the face of sea-level rise and increased coastal flooding, but Mayor Molly Ward from Hampton, VA and others made it clear that the idea “that somehow local government can solve this problem on its own is obviously just not true.” Adequate support and resources from the state and federal government will be necessary for these localities to protect their homes, businesses, and local economy from the devastating impacts of climate change.

President Obama took an encouraging step forward on this front when he announced a U.S. Climate Action Plan. Local governments from Virginia and other locales have begun setting a powerful example for climate action. But without assistance from the state and federal government, these communities will face an uphill battle toward sufficiently addressing climate change and its impacts.

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