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How VCIJ at WHRO reported on Norfolk’s seawall approval process

signing sized
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander, seated right, signs the official agreement for Norfolk's floodwall and resiliency plan in June 2023 (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

A new investigation from the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHROfound that while Norfolk officials moved through the process of approving a $1 billion dollar resilience plan, some city staff and leaders were unsure what the plan actually entailed.

Norfolk journalist Jim Morrison spent more than a year interviewing dozens of people and filing Freedom of Information Act requests to view city staff emails to uncover the conversations that culminated in unanimous City Council approval of the plan.

WHRO's News Director Mechelle Hankerson talked with Morrison about his reporting process and what he found.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mechelle Hankerson: WHRO has reported about the science of the floodwall and Norfolk's resiliency plan, but your story focuses on more of the decision making process. What did you find out about that process?

Jim Morrison: I'm very serious about transparency, and there was a lack of transparency throughout the process. MY goal was to create a story that was a narrative, but also an explainer about the basics of the plan.

I wanted to exhume how Norfolk got to yes on what will be the largest infrastructure project in the city's history, but I also wanted to inform people about the details of the plan.

M.H: You have been working on this for more than a year, correct?

J.M: That's correct. I first started reporting the story for The Washington Post, and in reporting that story, I started public records requests.

I wanted to understand more what was going on when I started getting those requests back, I realized that some of the things that city and Army Corps of Engineers staffers were talking about in private through emails and agendas and meetings were not things they were talking about to the public.

They're well-meaning. I think these people were really trying to do their best, but they were not effectively communicating, to me at least, the details of the plan and things that the public needed to know as the City Council was going forward with the decision whether to commit the city to nearly $1 billion in costs to a project that, as I wrote for the Post, won't stop flooding from tides, won't stop flooding from intensified and more frequent rainstorms.

M.H: What happens now? Now that you have laid out what this process looked like, laid out that there were people, even people working on and around this project, who had misgivings about the way it was rolled out -- does anything change?

J.M: Yeah. The city has requested a change in the plan. That's a very difficult and complicated process.

The good news is the Biden administration has a policy for social justice and environmental projects that devotes a chunk of the funding to a socially vulnerable places.

The Corps has said that they're going to change their cost benefit analysis. I took Michael Connor, the head of the civilian projects for the Corps, aside in June when he was here and asked him about that, and he said that they were working on what's called a rulemaking change and that it would be published in the Federal Register within six to eight weeks. I check the Federal Register every day. It's December 13th. It hasn't been published yet.

That change, if it goes through, will require a study and then it will require congressional authorization. So we're looking at three years for, you know, maybe more or less, down the line before this change will happen. And there's no guarantee that it will happen.

In the meantime, the other question I think about it is, as the project goes forward, Norfolk has all these other stormwater needs and those will have to be met in addition to the $1 billion that the city is obligated to. Now the city wants the state to pay half of that. The state hasn't agreed to pay half of that yet.

I think one thing to learn about this process is that Miami, New York, Charleston all pushed back. Miami's getting a new plan, a new study, fewer walls, more natural solutions, and the Corps is paying for the entirety of the new study.

M.H: It sounds like a good deal for Miami.

J.M: It's a good deal for Miami. New York's getting an even better deal.

New York just recently told the Corps no on their proposed plan and they told them to come back with a plan that protects against tidal and river flooding, heavy rainfall, groundwater emergence, erosion and sea level rise in addition to storm surge.

M.H: And that was the concern here in Norfolk.

J.M: Yes. So they're demanding that the Corps provide the entire package. They're getting sort of a seven-course tasting meal. They're getting it all.

Norfolk's getting whatever you want to call it, the entree or the appetizer and still has to self-fund or with help from the state and grants, all the other protections that will be needed for the city over the next five decades.

Mechelle is News Director at WHRO. She helped launch the newsroom as a reporter in 2020. She's worked in newspapers and nonprofit news in her career. Mechelle lives in Virginia Beach, where she grew up.