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Cities across Hampton Roads are working with federal Army Corps to study flood solutions

The York River as seen from Yorktown Beach. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)
The York River as seen from Yorktown Beach. (Photo by Katherine Hafner)

Several local governments in Hampton Roads are starting a process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build major regional protections against flooding during storms.

It’s the same effort the city of Norfolk launched nearly a decade ago that ultimately led to the city’s decision to build a $2.6 billion floodwall project with the Corps, which includes constructing massive flood barriers across some local waterways.

Norfolk’s planning to break ground later this year on that project, which has faced criticism from environmental advocates and community members who worry it will not address the city’s chronic flooding issues.

The studies are part of a federal initiative called Coastal Storm Risk Management, created by Congress after Hurricane Sandy devastated communities along the East Coast in 2012. The goal is to protect vulnerable coastal communities, especially as climate change fuels more frequent and intense storms.

New York City, Charleston, and Miami are among the other cities going through the process. 

Here’s where the studies stand in Hampton Roads: 

Virginia Beach

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 gave Virginia Beach $1.5 million to conduct a coastal storm risk study. (That same law also set aside $400 million for Norfolk’s floodwall.) Virginia Beach has to pay another $1.5 million on its own as well.

Officials started the feasibility study in July 2022, expecting it to take at least three years to evaluate the city's past, current and future flood management strategies. But the Corps' Norfolk District said in an email the team has now determined the area's complexity and size requires additional time and funding. 

In public meetings, Virginia Beach and Army Corps officials have laid out potential mitigation measures such as restoring coastal wetlands that help absorb storm surge, putting more sand on beaches to ease shoreline erosion, developing disaster warning systems and floodproofing homes through things like door shields or window coatings. 

Peninsula communities 

The Army Corps’ Norfolk District received federal approval in December to launch a feasibility study focused on the Peninsula. 

The city of Hampton will lead the $3 million effort in partnership with the Corps. The study will jointly assess flooding problems on the coast and from rivers in Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, Poquoson and James City and York counties.

Officials then plan to use the report to draft an action plan to “tangibly manage coastal storm risk and improve economic resiliency of the Peninsula region,” according to an Army Corps news release. 

That could include solutions like floodwalls, tide gates and home elevations. 

City Manager Mary Bunting said in the news release that the city has been pursuing the study for several years.

"Hampton has taken a very proactive position on mitigating the impact of storms and sea-level rise,” Bunting said in the statement. "Floodwaters cross borders, and this comprehensive study is an opportunity for the Peninsula to have a regional planning approach for shoreline protection projects."

Both the Virginia Beach and Peninsula projects will ultimately need authorization from Congress.

Eastern Shore

The Corps’ Norfolk District is pursuing federal funding for a storm risk study on Chincoteague Island, which has expressed interest in partnering with the federal agency.

Officials also hope to do a feasibility study focused on aquatic ecosystem restoration on Tangier Island, which is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Tangier has lost two-thirds of its land mass since 1850 and is predicted to fully turn into wetlands by 2051. But the Corps said it would need a local or state partner to cost-share for the project. 

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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