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Council talks storms, Fairgrounds

The new Health and Human Services building, now under construction at the Fairgrounds, is both under budget and on schedule for a May 1 completion date.

Currently, the tilt concrete walls have been lifted in place.

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn, during the Suffolk City Council’s work session Wednesday, said she thinks the city can make the residential part of the project happen by next year.

Under a new development plan for the Fairgrounds, the city is embarking on four main steps to move ahead on the project:

Develop a request for proposals for the private sector and submit it for responses in October;

Complete the construction of Hall Avenue;

Complete the remaining property acquisition of the project and, finally, select and enter into an agreement with development partners for the project.

The city, in a press release, said that Hall Avenue – which has been closed for several weeks for construction – is reopening immediately. It will close again in mid-November while sewer and water lines are installed, and likely will be open until the end of April, according to the release.

Councilman Charles Brown expressed his desire that the residential piece to the Fairgrounds be worth the more than five-year wait.

The City Council was also briefed on hurricane evacuation routes.

Capt. Jim Judkins, the city’s emergency services director, introduced guest speaker Stewart Baker, the hurricane program manager with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

Baker laid out the state’s results from the latest study on evacuation routes and traffic patterns in case a Category 3 storm were to hit the area.

They chose to use a Category 3 storm because Category 4 storms are “highly unlikely” to hit the area, he said.

According to the state’s data, more than 900,000 of the 1.6 million people living in Hampton Roads would be impacted by storm surges from a Category 3 hurricane. Of those 900,000, 500,000 people would desire to evacuate.

Those kinds of numbers leaving the area lead to traffic headaches. For example, Baker estimated that approximately 110,000 vehicles will be trying to get through Bowers Hill at one time.

Council members had questions for Baker.

Vice Mayor Curtis Milteer wanted to know if there were any studies on facilities available for underground shelters in the city. He said a Category 3 storm could certainly tear down a building, implying that even the city’s shelters could come down.

Baker said there were no subterranean shelters in the city.

In some slides from the state, the Kings Highway Bridge – which was demolished last year – was still shown as a usable span during an evacuation. The state’s evacuation routes had already been printed when Judkins notified them that the bridge had been demolished.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson thanked Baker for the report and said the city and region had become complacent to the notion of hurricane planning because of the number of times hurricanes have gone off course and not hit the region.

“We could easily be Houston or New Orleans or any of those places,” she said. “And we need to take this seriously.”