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A Fight Over Flood Preparedness In Virginia


Norfolk, Va., is among the American cities most threatened by rising sea levels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said last year that the city needs close to $2 billion in infrastructure improvements to reduce that flood risk. For now the city is taking steps to prepare for an increasingly wet future. But as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, some local homebuilders are not so happy about this.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: When Mary-Carson Stiff bought her house a few years ago, sea level rise and flooding were very much on her mind. Stiff works in environmental advocacy so she was happy to find a house on a hill with a nice, tall foundation that's been standing for almost a hundred years.

MARY-CARSON STIFF: The streets flood but your homes may stay dry. That's certainly the case on our street.

MCCAMMON: Even though Stiff can see a creek right from her front porch.

STIFF: However, it is not uncommon for our street that's perpendicular right on the creek side to experience flooding very frequently during our higher high tides, our lunar tides, and certainly during nor'easters and hurricanes.

MCCAMMON: Stiff supports a new zoning ordinance that requires virtually all new construction and many major home renovations to be built on an elevated foundation, even in neighborhoods where flood insurance isn't required. George Homewood is Norfolk's planning director.

GEORGE HOMEWOOD: There are far too many evenings where the moon is full and the tide is high where there are streets where the kayak is the preferred vehicle of choice because the streets are flooding.

MCCAMMON: Homewood says the city, surrounded by water on three sides, has no choice but to get ready for rising seas.

HOMEWOOD: It is something that the citizens of our city are extremely and painfully aware of.

MCCAMMON: The ordinance, which takes effect today, sets up a points system that requires builders to include things like rain barrels to capture storm water or shatter-resistant windows to better withstand hurricanes. It passed the city council unanimously despite opposition from some homebuilders. Nick Jacovides is president of EDC Homes, and he says he understands flooding is a problem here.

NICK JACOVIDES: Many times, we're tearing down homes that are in flood zones and building them up at the new flood elevations.

MCCAMMON: But Jacovides has several concerns about the new rules. He says some buyers see rain barrels as eyesores and mosquito traps. And he says all of it will add to the cost of building a home in Norfolk.

JACOVIDES: With, you know, these cost increases, things are going to go up somewhat that we're going to have to pass through to the customers.

MCCAMMON: It does cost a bit more - to build a taller foundation, for example. But Chad Berginnis of the Association of State Floodplain Managers says it will pay off.

CHAD BERGINNIS: These types of standards should protect property values for decades to come.

MCCAMMON: He says zoning rules that take sea level rise into account will also mean lower flood insurance premiums for homeowners.

BERGINNIS: And so for most property owners, it's that monthly house payment that becomes more important. And their monthly cost of ownership could go down significantly because of these standards.

MCCAMMON: He likes that Norfolk is applying these new standards outside the high-risk zone. Berginnis points to cities like Houston, which have seen more widespread flooding in recent years. That city is debating its own flood prevention standards, which are set for a vote later this month.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.