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Flood-plagued Pughsville community in Suffolk wins climate action grant

Flooding in the Pughsville community of Suffolk.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn White
Flooding in the Pughsville community of Suffolk.

Residents of the historically Black neighborhood at the Chesapeake border have long pleaded for help addressing outdated drainage infrastructure.

When it rains in Suffolk’s Pughsville community, drainage ditches and front yards become pools.

Neighbors have to walk in the middle of the street to get around, said Carolyn White, who was born in the area about seven decades ago when it was still Nansemond County.

“It’s just a hardship when we have any kind of rain, any kind of water or storm,” she said.

White and others in the historically Black neighborhood have long complained of drainage issues compounded by outdated infrastructure.

Carolyn and Wayne White at their Portsmouth church, where they recently hosted a meeting of the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.
Photo by Katherine Hafner
Carolyn and Wayne White at their Portsmouth church, where they recently hosted a meeting of the Virginia Council on Environmental Justice.

The city is now working on a $7.7 million drainage improvement project in the area, set to be bid for construction within the month.

“The flooding in the Pughsville Area is a major concern for the city,” public works engineer Luke Drylie said in an email. “As such we have invested a lot of resources into ensuring that we provide the citizens of Pughsville with the most effective flooding mitigation plan going forward.”

But White said the community is skeptical it’ll be enough. They’re starting to take matters into their own hands.

The Pughsville Civic League recently won a $20,000 grant from the Mid-Atlantic Climate Action Hub, which is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and run by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

The money is meant to help low-income communities of color in the Mid-Atlantic region that have been most heavily impacted by environmental racism and climate change.

White recently spoke about Pughsville’s challenges at a local meeting of the state’s Council on Environmental Justice.

She told council members that the community’s seen a rise in not only flooding but also water quality issues that can impact human health, like algae and bacteria in floodwaters.

Pughsville residents say they feel ignored by city officials.

An algae-filled
Photo courtesy of Carolyn White
An algae-filled drainage ditch in Pughsville.

“We’ve been asking for years and years and years,” said Wayne White, Carolyn’s husband and president of the civic league. “There come a time that maybe the city will listen to something that we have to tell them to do for the community.”

The long-awaited city project will include installing a drainage line and new stormwater retention pond to help slow water as it hits an outfall under Interstate 664.

Because the outfall is across the border in Chesapeake, it “has required a lot of coordination between our two municipalities,” Drylie said.

To accommodate the stormwater pond, in 2022 Suffolk’s City Council authorized the city to acquire two occupied properties in Pughsville over the objections of residents, according to the Suffolk News-Herald.

That reinforced residents’ fears that they are being pushed out of the historic neighborhood to make way for new development.

They worried the properties purchased through eminent domain will be redeveloped, especially after seeing Verizon installing lines in the spot a few months ago.

Drylie said after citizens notified them of the Verizon work, “thankfully we were able to respond in time and have them remove the lines as they would have been in conflict with our” stormwater project.

Carolyn White said the civic league would love to use its new grant to invest directly in infrastructure. But the money will likely be limited to education and training.

“It’s for the community,” she said. “We're going to do whatever we can in the community to get the word out to the people.”

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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