As coastal flooding increases, the people of Norfolk fight back

Coastal flooding is part and parcel of life in Norfolk, VA, and it has been for quite some time. Virginia Beach resident Ashley Hall, who visits the city often, remembers encountering a flood there nearly three decades ago. “I remember being shocked at the sight of urban streets filled with water, and people on the news bringing out kayaks and boats to paddle down streets normally filled with brake lights and honking horns,” she says.

And much to the dismay of residents, this flooding may only get worse.

Once known solely for housing the world’s largest naval base, Norfolk now possesses a newer, rather ignominious distinction: The coastal, mid-sized city is now experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast. Compounding this problem is a growing sinking feeling. A recent study by Nature Communications revealed that Norfolk and its neighboring cities are sinking at twice the rate as waters are rising.

The steady subsidence is due to a multitude of factors. Over the years, developers have built more and more structures along the nearby Chesapeake Bay, causing sediments to loosen in the bay underneath – a process known as compaction. Additionally, humans have withdrawn groundwater from the local Potomac aquifer at an unsustainable rate. Officials have attempted to battle this latter problem by regularly pumping a million gallons of treated water into the aquifer every day. By 2026, they aim to increase this rate sixteenfold.

The worsening flooding arising from these phenomena is more than just a nuisance for Norfolk residents, however. According to Luísa Black Ellis, Resilience Manager of the non-profit environmental group The Elizabeth River Project, this flooding has also caused ecological complications. Speaking about the Elizabeth River, an essential home for local wetlands, Ellis explains, “As these floodwaters recede back into the river, they carry with them a potent cocktail of fertilizers, pet waste, trash, and sediments – all of which flow unabated into the river. As much pollution as once flowed into the river in a year of high-tide flooding now is deposited into the river in just one day.”

If unimpeded, these rising levels of water and pollution may eventually drown the Elizabeth River’s wetlands, snuffing out its vital carbon-sequestering plant life. Still, the Elizabeth River Project plans to stave off an impending ecological disaster by building “living shorelines”; that is, microsystems of native wetland plants that can travel upland with the rising tide and generate new wetland areas.

So, there’s at least a glimmer of hope for residents of Norfolk and its surrounding cities. Even if they have to wade down their street every time it storms, they’ll at least be able to breathe.