Rising to the challenge

Published 10:23 am Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coastal Virginians don’t need us to educate them about sea-level rise and recurrent flooding. They see with their own eyes how often severe flooding occurs in their region and they know that the number and intensity of these floods has increased when comparing past decades to today. That’s why they are coming together in a bipartisan, locally driven effort to work on this issue as a unified Hampton Roads community.

And that’s why we, as bipartisan members of Virginia’s congressional delegation, are part of that effort. Like the constituents we represent, we have different views on many national issues. But we are Virginians first, and our constituents have the right to expect us to find common ground on issues of importance to Virginia.

Whatever the causes of sea-level rise may be, the effects on the commonwealth are clear. You’ve heard the stats before, but they bear repeating. Hampton Roads is the second largest U.S. population center at risk from sea-level rise and flooding behind New Orleans. Sea level could rise 5 ½ feet or more in Norfolk by the end of this century. By 2040, the main road leading into the largest naval station in the world could be washed out just from daily tides, not even from an extreme storm. Data from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission shows that by 2080, at current rising trends, economic costs from property losses alone could run anywhere from $12 billion to $87 billion, affecting between 500 and 3,500 Hampton Roads businesses (and between 5,000 and 50,000 jobs). By that time, it will really be too late to do anything about these issues. The challenge before us is to start taking action to pre-empt these effects — not in 2080, but right now.

Last month, the three of us, along with Rep. Rob Wittman and Mayors Paul Fraim of Norfolk and Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach, hosted a conference at Old Dominion University on sea-level rise and recurrent flooding. We listened to testimony on the national security impacts from representatives of the White House National Security Council, the Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. We discussed the needs of local military installations and defense activities, which are responsible for 46 percent of the Hampton Roads regional economy. We heard from bipartisan officials in the governor’s office, the General Assembly and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. We also received an update on a first-of-its-kind “whole of community” initiative led by ODU to coordinate sea-level rise stakeholders from all levels of government, academia and the private sector.

The conference left us with much to think about but also confidence that we are on the right track. The work done by academic institutions, such as ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center and the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has produced data crucial to informing smart policymaking. The ODU-led initiative is a sensible effort to align the work going on in so many places so that the talent and activities of these stakeholders is effectively channeled into coordinated action.

Above all, it’s clear that while additional analysis is necessary, we need to start moving from an “assess the problem” phase to a “solution implementation” phase. Federal support for critical flood-control infrastructure must be a priority while acknowledging the difficult budgetary realities that we face. Every piece of infrastructure we build before an extreme weather event is a piece we don’t have to rebuild afterward at four times the cost, according to the Coastal States Organization. We must ensure that adaptation and resiliency are criteria in consideration of grant proposals and central to planning decisions for housing, transportation and other economic development projects. We must facilitate close coordination between localities and federal installations so that when extreme weather events do occur, municipal infrastructure can protect local residents and maintain the functionality of local installations. And we must do as much as we can without major federal spending increases, which we know will be a hard sell in this time of budget constraints.

On the same day as our conference at ODU, the Government Accountability Office released a new analysis of Department of Defense adaptation infrastructure planning needs in Virginia and two other states. Another day, another analysis. This issue isn’t going away. But neither is the commitment of Virginians nor their elected officials to work together to bolster regional preparedness, protect regional military and economic assets, and keep Hampton Roads a vibrant, resilient community for future generations. Together, we can rise to the challenge.

TIM KAINE represents Virginia in the United States Senate. SCOTT RIGELL (R) represents Virginia’s 2nd District, and BOBBY SCOTT (D) Virginia’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This column originally appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.