Sea Level Rise: An existential threat to Hampton Roads

Norfolk flooding
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NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- On November 5, 2017, the Earth, moon and the will sun line up and create the highest tide of the year: the King Tide.

For a region surrounded by water and prone to tidal flooding, experts say this event will help give them important information regarding the rising sea level and help predict the impact of flooding in the future.

But even as scientists study what may be in store for us in the future, sea level rise is affecting us here in Hampton Roads today.

SEE ALSO: What is the King Tide? Hampton Roads' highest astronomical tide of the year

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Homeowners in flood zones feel sea level rise threat

Berkshire Hathaway real estate agent Michael Gray says increasing storm-related flooding is changing the way he does business. He only expects things to get worse with the looming threat of sea level rise.

"Five or six years ago, you didn't have to worry about it as much."

But with flood map changes to better soak up potential risks, Gray is finding homeowners are being caught off guard when they're hit with high flood insurance premiums.

"Sometimes, it's not a little bit but a lot... $300 to $400 a month on a house that the mortgage payment might only be $1,000."

He has examples with his own family in Portsmouth. In Olde Towne, his parents must pay flood insurance on a rental home, where only the front steps sit in the flood zone. Their monthly payments increased by just more than $350. The same thing happened to his brother, who was slapped with an extra $400 a month.

FEMA requires homeowners with federally backed mortgages to buy flood insurance for the life of the mortgages if they live in a high risk flood zone. Some premiums are paid through the National Flood Insurance Program. The increasing number of major storms is stretching the program thin. 

That's one reason why Gray makes sure he tells potential homebuyers to not only check flood zone maps but get an elevation certificate.

"You would call a surveyor and they come out and look and see how high your residence is off the ground, and they look at where the major mechanicals of the house are located."

It means that just because a home is in a flood zone, what really matters is how high the living space is off the ground. The higher the elevation, the less you pay in insurance.

In a rare case, Gray's brother's payments were completely wiped out once he was able to obtain an elevation certificate.

In Larchmont in Norfolk, Mike Vernon, the Flood Insurance Guy, points out a puddle on Richmond Crescent that never goes away.  The area is one of Hampton Roads' most flood-prone neighborhoods.

Vernon helps homeowners lower what he calls "exorbitantly high" insurance premiums by providing them with mitigation plans to make their homes compliant with FEMA codes. He says for every 500 dollars a person has to pay in flood insurance, it devalues their home by 10 thousand dollars.

"We can lower their insurance premiums by 80 to 90 percent."

Mitigation plans depend on how the house is built. The most expensive fix is when lifting homes that are built on slabs. It's usually a six-figure job that can be paid for in part by a FEMA grant.

Edward Guyton's home was raised about two years ago and it has brought him a lot of relief. He says that just since July 22, the street has had  57 days in the row of flooding of at least two feet. "You have no idea what it's like to not be afraid to your bones, if you will, when there's a storm coming."

FEMA elevation certificate by 13News Now on Scribd

Learning on the water to be stewards of the environment

For many people, the effects of climate change and sea level rise may seem far in the future, but for our kids and grandchildren, it is the world they'll inherit.  In 2003 the State Department of Education developed standards for how students in the Commonwealth should learn that oceans are complex biological systems. Those standard give districts the freedom focus on the unique environmental concerns in their communities.

In Hampton Roads, that's where the 'Learning Barge' comes in. Powered by the sun, complete with wetlands and science labs, kids climb on board to learn how to be better stewards of the waterways.

Students learn that the water is salty. There's poop in the water. They also learn that a host of creatures calls it home. And for students who can see their neighborhoods flood, wetlands act like a sponge to absorb the rising tides.

The Learning Barge is part of the Elizabeth River Project, an organization whose aim is to restore the waterway by educating -- young and old -- about its importance to the region and the environment.

"The river has done so much for us throughout history. It's a beautiful river. It's something everyone should be connected to," Robin Dunbar, the Elizabeth River Project's Deputy Dir Education, told us.

Since 2009, 70,000 students have connected to the river by climbing aboard to do research and collect scientific data on climate change and sea level rise.

"I want them to learn as young as they are, each student, each child, can help improve our environment," Bargekeeper Sarah Brennan said.

PHOTOS: Students get hands-on experience with the Learning Barge

The State Department of Education's broad standards not only acknowledge the complexities of oceans, but also that climate change and sea level rise are real. The standards are updated every seven years with many voices in the conversation to try and keep politics out of it.

"We have parents that believe, we have parents that don't. It's something we have to wear kid gloves with," said Anne Petersen, Science Coordinator with the Department of Education.

The state also allows school districts to tailor teaching about the environment to the unique challenges different regions of the state face; the pipeline in the west and sea level rise in the Hampton Roads area.

"I want them to understand that what they do, what their parents do, what their community does, has a direct impact on our environment and that includes global climate change and sea level rise," Petersen said.

At the Learning Barge, imagination is encouraged.

"I'm drawing a fish with a tornado. I'm trying to draw that the tornado messes up the water for the fish," a young student told us.

Teachers said there's also a lot of critical thinking that happens on the barge.

"We have opportunities to practice science, to practice math, to practice thinking like researchers and practice making inferences," said Jessica Earley, a Reading teacher.
  
Many kids who visit the Learning Barge have never seen a river, or ever seen wetlands, even though they live in a community surrounded by water.  No classroom could ever bring them this close. They will leave today knowing not just the importance of the river to the Navy and commerce, and the long-term effects of sea level rise. They'll also learn that when they were in fourth grade, the river celebrated the return of seahorses and river otters.

"They are our future river stewards. It's really important to us that they remember the lessons they learned here today and carry it with them forward," Sarah Brennan added.

Faith and science intersect

There seems to be something to the fact that as oceans become warmer and tides rise, storms are becoming more powerful today. In the aftermath of these deadly storms, the poor all-too-often find themselves without food and water and a place to call home.

"Whether we are there, or not, we all feel the psychological and the spiritual violence and tragedy of it all, and those who are the poorest always suffer the worst," Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg, Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk told us.

Imam Rachid Khould, the Spiritual Leader of the Crescent Community Center in Virginia Beach sees the suffering it in a similar light. "We cannot sit down and watch them suffer. We really have to go and help them. This is what my faith says."

Hampton Roads faith leaders we met with say they see both a call to try and end the suffering, and the need to speak out to try and alter the trajectory of climate change. Their religious beliefs may be far apart, yet all agree that faith and science work hand-in-hand.

"Faith honors the knowledge of science by bringing eternal themes, such as the fact that each part of creation is beloved and cherished," Canon Win Lewis, Pastor of Christ's and St Luke's Church in Norfolk told us.

"Keep the balance of the earth. Keep this world beautiful just as in the way it was created by Almighty God," Imam Khould adds.

There is also agreement there is much work to be done. "It is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to heal, not only our fellow human beings, but also the planet," Rabbi Mandelberg says.

For now, these faith leaders find their voices on environmental issues largely among their followers, encouraging efforts to save the bay or the use of green energy.

Their congregations often are not far from the area's rising tides. Christ and St Luke's Church in Ghent is just feet from the Hague and is now spending millions to save the century-old structure from sea level rise.

Even more concerning is the question of not whether a major hurricane will hit our region, but when, and what role might "moral voices" play in helping the area recovery.

"I think the faith traditions as part of their focus on the creation and honoring the creation, must have a larger conversation about the environment," Lewis says.

That conversation is also perhaps a voice in how the area grows economically. An Amazon headquarters would bring billions of dollars to Hampton Roads, but if the project increased the area's carbon footprint, is that first a conversation about "community values," and could the faith community be an important voice at the table?

"I get paid to have an opinion, David, so I would be pleased to share with Jewish tradition has to say about things like the environment, because we really have a lot to say about it," Rabbi Mandelberg says.

And finally this thought: was the power and might of Hurricane Maria a call for a renewed respect for the realities of nature, and also a call for a larger conversation about a connection between what happened here and then the storm of rage that came over the Las Vegas gunman?  Win Lewis says it's a conversation worth exploring.

"I think there are more connections between the rhythms of the earth and the emotional social rhythms of humanity than we may realize. I think in the future the knowledge may be there to help us understand how that happens."

Our faith leaders say for now, speaking out on the environment is about speaking truth in love to power, realizing their voices are stronger when they speak as one, and realizing there is only one Mother Earth!

Looking beyond the King Tide

This weekend, a host of citizen scientists -- apps in hand -- will fan out across Hampton Roads to measure the King Tide, the highest astronomical tide level of the year. The results are expected to show that as our planet gets warmer, tides are rising faster than in years past. The data collected also will give scientists and emergency planners valuable information about how flooding will impact our region in the future.

There is no doubt the images of powerful storms we see today often are breathtaking while the death and destruction they cause increasingly painful to watch.  From Texas, to Florida, to Puerto Rico, and even in Hampton Roads, the effects of oceans becoming warmer and storms becoming more powerful are impacting more and more lives.

"We are issuing more flood warnings and things now in the 2000's than we were back in the 1980's," Jeff Orrock with the National Weather Service told us. Orrock also says the King Tide measured by volunteers across the region on Sunday surely will be passed in years to come.

The inconveniences of the flooding we see now -- sometimes as simple as moving your car to a parking garage -- soon will be replaced by rising waters that will make areas of Hampton Roads impassable and inaccessible.

If you own a home in Hampton Roads, it's possible you're already seeing the effects of rising tides. Real estate agents say in some parts of Hampton Roads say flooding is changing the way they do business.

"Five or six years ago, we didn't have to worry about it as much," Michael Gray with Berkshire Hathaway told us. Gray went on to say that rising tides can add hundreds of dollars a month to mortgage payments for flood insurance, and as flood maps change, more owners and buyers will feel it.

"Sometimes it's not a little bit, but a lot. $300 to $400 on a mortgage payment might only be a thousand dollars," Gray added.

Even worse are the issues Mike Vernon, known as “ the flood insurance guy” sees in Norfolk's Larchmont neighborhood where flooding can be epic. Vernon works to get homes FEMA code-compliant to try and lower insurance premiums. Some are as high as $6,000 a year. 

"You can build a second floor and turn the first floor into non-living space. You can demolish and rebuild and you can lift them," Gray said.

That type of work is about to begin at Christ and St Luke's Church in Ghent. The century-old church -- just a few yards from the Hague -- soon will spend millions of dollars to keep rising tides away. Local faith leaders we met with are telling us it's not just the suffering powerful storms and rising tides cause that concern them. They also would like a larger voice in trying to change the trajectory of climate change.

"Keep the balance of the earth. Keep this world beautiful, just as in the way it was created by Almighty God," Imam Rachid Khould of the Crescent Community Center told us. 

"It's incumbent upon us to do all that we can to heal, not only our fellow human beings, but also the planet," Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg of Ohef Sholom Temple added.

While some people clearly disagree about the impact of sea level rise on the planet, for the children of today it is the future they will inherit.

In 2004, state educators set standards for learning that oceans are complex biological systems, while acknowledging the existence of sea level rise.

Here on the Learning Barge, docked on the Elizabeth River, these students are collected scientific data and learning how to be resilient in the face of rising tides that often flood their neighborhoods.

"I want them to learn as young as they are, each student, each child, can help improve our environment," Sarah Brennan, a Bargekeeper told us.

The King Tide is not expected to be a dramatic weather event. But for a region that depends on its waterways for its ports, the military, and even for play, the event will be measuring not just a water line along the shores of Hampton Roads, but also a commitment the region made to its future in 2018.