Some lawmakers see economic potential in responding to sea-level rise

By: - August 28, 2018 6:02 am
A ferry passes the General Dynamic shipyard in Norfolk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A ferry passes the General Dynamics shipyard in Norfolk. Shipyards in Hampton Roads have lobbied for natural gas capacity in recent years. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In Gloucester County, if residents don’t leave the county every day, the Riverside hospital system or Walmart are probably where the majority spend their workdays.

There’s not much else for work in the county limits, said Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, who represents the area.

But he’s hoping that, with the creation of a new state cabinet position, places in the “rural coastal” area of the state, as Hodges calls it, could be at the forefront of a new economy: adaptation and resiliency.

Virginia’s first special assistant on coastal adaptation and protection would lead the state’s efforts to prepare for and lessen the impact of flooding and land subsidence along the coast and turn that into an economic opportunity for those areas.

“The special assistant shall be the lead in developing and in providing direction and ensuring accountability for a statewide coastal flooding adaptation strategy,” the law creating the position reads. “He shall initiate and assist with economic development opportunities associated with adaptation (and) development opportunities for the creation of business incubators.”

Virginia already has statewide positions overseeing resiliency. Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran currently oversees emergency preparedness and resiliency. But the focus has primarily been environmental, said Del. Chris Stolle, R-Norfolk, who was the chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Coastal Flooding where the idea for the special assistant originated.

Lawmakers who led the effort to create the new position hope the new cabinet member can help make mitigating Virginia’s flood risk an economic boost across the state.

“We don’t have a tax base when it comes to business,” Hodges said of Gloucester. “This could allow people to work here too.”

Creating the position has been a priority for lawmakers in the eastern part of the state for years, Stolle said. The General Assembly voted to create the position in 2018.

Virginia Beach — the state’s largest city —plans for sea levels to rise 1.5 feet in the next 40 years. And in Norfolk, home to the largest U.S. Navy base in the world, water levels have risen 1.5 feet in the last 91 years, according to a recent report by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Land subsidence in the eastern part of the state is harder to track, but some estimates suggest Hampton Roads sinks two to three millimeters a year.

Coastal lawmakers historically had trouble convincing some of their inland colleagues that the position was needed, so it was important that the new cabinet member can do more than manage grant money for coastal projects.

“This is more than recovery and preparing for a storm,” Stolle said. “This is about how do we literally get ahead of the storm.”

That could mean changing standards for infrastructure construction and building codes, Stolle said. And when it comes to making those re-imagined projects realities, Hodges hopes coastal communities can reap the economic benefits by providing labor or space for new business.

However, it’s unclear what those projects would be. Virginia Beach started a comprehensive sea-level rise study in 2015 to create a strategy. Other coastal cities have created resiliency offices.

Any projects created from those studies would likely require some level of federal funding.

“We are certainly not going to solve this problem on our own,” Stolle said.

Virginia’s new special assistant isn’t an original idea in states with vulnerable coastlines. Hodges and Stolle said they looked to New Orleans to see how resiliency can affect the economy.

New Orleans, which saw widespread damage and hundreds of lives lost after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, created a city office for resiliency and sustainability. In 2015, city leaders adopted a broad strategy to make sure the city was prepared for a natural disaster and more common threats, like recurring flooding.

The plan addresses infrastructure in the city, but it also lays out ways to improve workforce development options and keep residents in jobs.

Those seemingly unrelated topics were included to make sure residents had a way to bounce back from unplanned disasters, said Anne Coglianese, a coastal resilience program manager in New Orleans.

New Orleans is still in the planning stages of some construction projects related to flood mitigation, Coglianese said, and the city wants to employ local companies when it comes time for construction

Virginia is still looking for candidates for its statewide special assistant position. The state has set aside $140,000 from the general fund to pay for the position. Right now, there aren’t budgetary provisions to provide staff for the special assistant.

It will be difficult to fill the job, Stolle said, because the state is looking for someone who can work across offices and levels of government.

“We need someone who can bring all the different parts together,” he said.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.