Sea levels rising

Published 10:54 pm Thursday, June 23, 2011

Water rising: Homes along the Nansemond River could be at risk during a storm surge, a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission study found.

Suffolk at greater risk from storms

Parts of the city of Suffolk are at risk from the effects of a rising sea level in the area, a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission report released last week found.

The level of water in the area’s bays and rivers has risen between 1 and 2 feet in the last 100 years, according to data gathered for the report.

“We made the determination based on the data at the tide gauges at Sewell’s Point and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that, in fact, sea level has risen,” said John Carlock, deputy executive director of the HRPDC. “We can debate whether it’s global warming or something else going on, but the fact of the matter is that sea level is rising.”

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Though other areas of Hampton Roads are at far more risk than Suffolk, the study does have some implications for this city, as well.

The rise means that some areas that previously only risked flooding during major hurricanes may now flood in minor storms.

“Something that right now is vulnerable only to a Category 2 [hurricane] might be vulnerable to a Category 1 in 50 to 100 years from now,” said Benjamin McFarlane, a regional planner with HRPDC.

In addition, especially low-lying areas risk permanent inundation down the road, McFarlane said.

The storm surge for a Category 1 hurricane in Suffolk would lead to about 4,300 people being affected at their homes, along with about 16 businesses and two miles of road.

In a Category 4 storm, though, those numbers would rise to 14,500 people, 196 businesses and 76 miles of road.

The majority of the risk in Suffolk lies along the Nansemond River and its tributaries. Fortunately, even in a Category 4 storm, no health care facilities, fire stations or police stations would be at risk from storm surge.

In a Category 3 storm, one school would be affected. In a Category 4 storm, that number would rise to four schools affected.

The study can be used to help regional leaders plan for the future, Carlock said.

“One part of the message is, it’s something we’ve all got to pay attention to,” he said.

The commission will continue with the next steps of exploring additional data and the economic impacts of a storm.

“We will give the information to local governments to decide what are the most cost-effective ways of dealing with it,” Carlock said.

The next phase of the study can be used to help people and governments plan ahead, Carlock said — deciding whether to raise roads or rebuild a house that has been destroyed for whatever reason.

But he acknowledged that planning for sea level rise would be difficult for a number of reasons, such as bearing the costs today with little obvious reward until far into the future, as well as the uncertainty about the extent of sea level rise over the next century.