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Five-year NSU project will fight sea level rise inequities in Hampton Roads

A car struggles with floodwaters in Norfolk in 2022. (Photo: Mechelle Hankerson)
A car struggles with floodwaters in Norfolk in 2022. (Photo: Mechelle Hankerson)

The mounting effects of sea level rise impact most corners of Hampton Roads. 

But some communities feel them more acutely – and they tend to be those with lower incomes or other disparities, said Ashley Haines, a biology professor at Norfolk State University.

“What we know is that the impacts of climate change and investment in managing those climate change impacts are unequally distributed within coastal communities,” she said.

Haines is part of a new team that hopes to start addressing those discrepancies. 

NSU is working with the University of Virginia on a five-year research project focused on fighting sea level rise and its unequal impact. The Norfolk nonprofit Elizabeth River Project is also a partner and helped launch the effort.

The collaboration recently won a $5 million grant from a National Science Foundation program designed to help coastal communities protect their resources. 

Research will continue throughout the grant period, with help from students. That includes monitoring water quality and computer modeling of rising waters and infrastructure. 

Overall, the idea is to be a bit different from a traditional research venture, Haines said. NSU wants to focus on developing realistic solutions. 

That starts by working directly with and in local communities. Haines said they haven’t yet selected which neighborhoods that will include, but most will be in Norfolk.

Researchers are particularly interested in how sea level rise affects stormwater management. 

Rising tides have already shown to reduce the capacity of stormwater systems in Hampton Roads. Some water lines in Norfolk are half-full of water before rain even falls, according to data in recent years. 

When a storm blows through, that can cause drains to release water rather than absorb it.

Haines said they aim to look at not just climate impacts, but the way we respond to them through things like green infrastructure. 

That’s the term for nature-based solutions such as restoring wetlands to absorb tidal waters.

Communities of color are often the last place to get the newest fixes.

“In wealthier communities, folks can either move or raise their homes. And in more disadvantaged communities, that's just not an option,” Haines said. 

“So they have to focus on how to confront those climate change issues and live with them and manage them.”

They hope to figure out which methods work best and how marginalized neighborhoods can have a voice in designing and implementing them.

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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