NORFOLK, Va.—Jimmy Strickland can tell you exactly how much money rising sea levels have cost his business. In 1989, he opened his accounting firm in a one-story brick building near Norfolk’s historic cobblestoned Hague district, which surrounds one of this low-lying city’s many tidal rivers.
Dressed in pinstripes and a large, gold class ring, the white-haired Strickland is a consummate Southern gentleman—and also a consummate small-business owner. In his soft coastal accent, he tells the story of how the rising tides of Norfolk have eroded his bottom line. “I was here for 14 years, and nothing happened. We had no idea this area flooded. It had never happened before,” Strickland says. “Then, over the past 10 years, we had three big ones.” In 2003, Hurricane Isobel drove a foot-high surge of seawater into his office, drenching the foundation and walls. On Veterans Day 2009, a nor’easter brought a repeat. Last October, while most of Virginia escaped the wrath of superstorm Sandy as it barreled up the coast toward New York, the tidal waters in Norfolk rose and soaked through his cinder-block foundation. Strickland and his wife spent 36 hours in the office, vacuuming the moisture as it seeped through the floor. Now, whenever a storm is forecast, the boss and his staff come in to prep two days before it is due. That means moving furniture and files, as well as wrapping the photocopiers and fax machines in plastic. It means hours of setting up the $12,000 “door-dam” system that Strickland bought online—an assembly of metal panels and pegs that can hold floodwaters from the building for a few tide cycles.
“I could be billing $150 an hour for my workers,” he says. “Instead, this is what we’re doing. And then it’s another two days or more after the storm to put it all back.”
Afterward comes the long wrangling with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has paid out about $250,000 each time to repair Strickland’s damaged building, replace his furniture, and truck in an arsenal of fans and dehumidifiers to dry everything out.
Strickland wants a more permanent solution. He has thought about selling the building, but he’s worried that after being hit by three floods in 10 years, he’ll have a hard time finding a buyer. Instead, he’s looking into elevating the structure on stilts. Local contractors have bid the job at $1.5 million to $2 million. He’d like to use the post-Sandy $250,000 from FEMA to help offset the cost, but the federal government pays for cleanup only, not prevention.
“At some point, you’d think they’d say, ‘Enough is enough. Let’s pay for a permanent solution.’ But either way, somebody’s paying,” he says.
And Strickland fully expects someone, whether it’s him or taxpayers, to pay more in the future, as sea levels climb higher. “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more and more evidence of the waters rising,” the accountant says. “I’m just a small businessman. I’m looking at my building, on the impact of this on me and my employees; but other people are going to start thinking, am I going to want to relocate my business here?”
It’s a question being asked all across the region, as a series of scientific reports have singled out Norfolk as one of the nation’s cities most vulnerable to flooding and economic devastation as a result of sea-level rise—second only to New Orleans. The reason: rapidly rising sea levels due to climate change. Among the chief causes for that rise, according to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, which trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, melting polar ice sheets and driving up the tides. Over the past century, the planet’s sea levels have risen about 8 inches. Globally, scientists now project sea levels to rise another 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century.
And the story gets worse. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey determined that sea levels along the East Coast will rise three to four times faster than the global average. The study named Norfolk, New York City, and Boston as the three metro areas most vulnerable to the devastating effects of rising sea levels—ranging from the dramatic increase in storm surge, as winds scoop up water from the sea and dump more of it farther from the coast than ever before, to the steady erosion of roads, buildings, and arable soil as seawater creeps inland.
Norfolk, however, faces a double whammy: The city and the surrounding region of Hampton Roads sit on soft marshes, so while the tide is rapidly rising, the land is slowly sinking. The economic impact of these forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion. Hampton Roads is a major engine of the state’s economy, home to 1.6 million people, the world’s largest naval base, including the only U.S. shipyard that builds nuclear submarines, and the tourist mecca of Virginia Beach.
This article appears in the February 9, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Cost Of Inaction.