A Humble Proposal for Addressing Recurrent Flooding

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

Flooding in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter

By James A. Bacon

The recurrence of tidal/surge flooding in Hampton Roads has increased from 1.7 days of “nuisance” flooding yearly in 1960 to 7.3 days in 2o14, and with continued land subsidence and sea-level rise, the flooding will become even more common. So say the authors of “Building Resiliency in Response to Sea Level Rise and Recurrent Flooding: Comprehensive Planning in Hampton Roads,” published in the January 2016 issue of the Virginia News Letter.

Of all the region’s localities, according to the paper, the City of Portsmouth has moved the fastest to incorporate adaptive strategies into its comprehensive planning. The low-lying city of about 100,000 citizens is extremely vulnerable, with 38% of households lying within AE Flood Zones and approximately 50 miles of roadway located less than 4.5 feet above mean high water.

Last year the city interviewed nearly 2,000 households to ask about the frequency of flooding, flood-related loss, risk perception and mitigation behavior. Nearly half the residents surveyed reported being unable to get in or our of their neighborhoods in the past year due to flooding; more than a quarter reported being unable to get to work. More than 18% report suffering some form of damage to vehicles.

“There is strong perception among residents that future economic opportunities will be curtailed by changing sea levels; this view is even more strongly held by residents who experience difficulty getting in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood in or out of their neighborhoods due to flood,” the authors write. “About 30 percent of residents agree that flooding specifically has negatively impacted the value of their homes.”

The authors are less clear about what can be done. They allude to three broad strategies for dealing with flooding: retreat, protection and accommodation. Retreat might entail restricting development in low-lying areas. Protection might include sea walls, living shorelines, improvement storm water drains, better street drainage or ditch maintenance. Accommodation might mean accepting inconvenience, disruption and property loss as the “new normal.” But the paper provides little guidance as to when and where these strategies might be appropriate or how they might be paid for.

Bacon’s bottom line: The authors note that households can adapt by installing pumps and drains, relocating HVA systems or buying higher-riding automobiles. But, other than relocating their residences to higher land, there doesn’t seem much else that individual households can do to protect themselves. Some kind of collective action is necessary.

Here’s the problem: In some areas, improvements will be too costly. In others, the real estate is of such low value, it’s not worth saving even at modest cost. But if local governments spend money on one neighborhood, every other neighborhood in the political jurisdiction will want their piece of the pie. And why not? Their residents pay taxes, too.


Flooding hot spots in Portsmouth. Image credit: Virginia Newsletter.

Here’s an idea I throw out for discussion: Create community development authorities that encompass those areas (such as the yellow-red islands shown in map of Portsmouth to the right) that are most prone to flooding. A flood-mitigation plan is developed for each district, with improvements to be paid for with taxes raised from property owners in that district. Then put it to a vote of the residents of the district. Let those closest to the situation weigh the costs (a higher tax) versus the benefits (less property damage, flood-free streets, etc.) and decide for themselves.

The result would be a public-improvement plan more tightly aligned with the local circumstances and less vulnerable to political log-rolling than anything a city-wide effort could pull off and far easier to sell politically.

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3 responses to “A Humble Proposal for Addressing Recurrent Flooding

  1. the problem with areas that go underwater and stay that way is that simply jacking them up or abandoning the lower parts does not deal with underground utilities.

    I don’t know how Venice “works” but I suspect things like water and sewer mains, gas, phone, electric, etc don’t do well underwater unless designed to do that.

    The problem with tax districts, taxes in general – is the inevitable loss of re-sale value thus it’s taxable value not to mention the loss of insurance. – even the subsidized flood program is not going to do anything other than a one time payment – and take that money and go – because if you stay – the insurance is gone…

    In the end – abandonment is going to become the only real option.

    I can safely predict that most taxpayers are not about to pay higher taxes to “save” the unfortunate flooded ones… it’s going to be every man for himself… and that includes commercial properties .

    And you can see this play out already when there is vociferous opposition to the mere drawing of flood maps… people are even advocating laws against developing and printing those maps – much less determinations of insurance ….

    It will help you on your taxes – in that you can use it $3,000 at a time (carry over loss) to lower your adjusted gross – and the taxes on that.

    HEY – I bet this is YET ANOTHER area where Crazy and I – AGREE!


    The subsidized Flood loan program combined with rising seas and land subsistence will become a slow-motion disaster as the Feds realize there is no way they can handle the burgeoning “flood” of folks looking for the govt to bail them out.

  2. When you look at that future map of Portsmouth – .

    Hypothetically – if you were presented with that situation prior to any development – just an undeveloped greenfield region – how would you go about developing it?

    every little “island” would require a permanent above-water bridge or causeway – right?

    you’d have to do that in order to convey utilities to/from that area. You’d not purposely want to try to build and maintain utility infrastructure -that would flood . You’d string electric, phone above and probably put the water/sewer/gas under the bridge – still above the water level – even at flood.

    you’d not purposely design any utilities that would spend any time – under water. If you would not design it that way – why would you try to maintain something that would get flooded? You’d leave – and you’d do so especially if you had subsidized Federal flood insurance.

    In fact – the Federal Flood insurance program will not even offer flood insurance to private owners in a given community – if that community does not prohibit building in flood-prone areas to start with and that includes renovation of flooded properties.

    We seem to be in denial of the real consequences of building in or trying to maintain buildings in areas that subsequently flood.

    It’s not fiscally realistic not from a private owner perspective and not from a public funding perspective.

    when we say “building resiliency” are we, in effect, advocating that as a public policy – we do something the private sector would never do?


    Instead of retreating from the advancing seas – we are going to essentially advocate that we subsidize the property owners of such land to stay there – as govt policy – tax-funded efforts to maintain govt and private facilities and infrastructure in the face of rising seas?

    I can possibly see that for SOME things LIKE ports for salvaging already existing port facilities and basically building connecting causeways to continue move freight and access for military ships but I cannot see doing that for other dry land-oriented facilities and infrastructure public or private – for the most part.

    it just seems fiscally irresponsible to try to maintain something that really should be abandoned.

    The Feds Flood insurance approach is to pay for the loss – ONE TIME – and allow the made-whole property owner to re-locate further inland – but if he insists on staying then he does so without any insurance and the next event loss is his alone not taxpayers.

    The govt (taxpayers) should not at all be funding ANY efforts to stay where flooding is recurrent – period.

    I see this “resilience” and “hardening” idea as not only a denial of the consequences of advancing seas but fiscally tone deaf.

    What I’d like to see instead with these kinds of studies is the input of insurers and the financial community who would be expected to participate in financing and insuring such things and their estimates of the dollar costs of “resiliency” before we commit to that path.

    My bet is that they would not financially touch these concepts with a ten foot pole but it is precisely the reason why we should be including listening to financial planners.. first – and not just land-use planners who, in my estimation often try to do with govt – what the private sector would find fiscally unsustainable.

    where am I going wrong on my view?

    What’s a good opposing view?

    Long-story short – we should not be trying to maintain land-based infrastructure and facilities in flood prone places – even newly flooded places. Recognize the reality and make preparations to leave.

    There’s a final irony here. When the auto industry died in Detroit – it sent it to fiscal disaster – the tax base – gone – facilities, services, infrastructure became not financially sustainable.

    And what has been recommended? bulldoze the houses and return the land to an unbuilt state – and abandon the utilities.

    Perhaps Portsmouth and communities like it will have to respond in similar fashion – don’t try to use other folks money to continue denial – accept the reality – and adapt accordingly and especially in a fiscally-responsible manner.

  3. If “nearly 32%”not near the coastline report neighborhood flooding twice a year, along with 38% who are, there’s more than sea level rise in play. How much of the flooding is connected to state highways criss-crossing Portsmouth that interfere with natural drainage pathways of streams and creeks? How much is related to inadequate VDOT maintenance of road drainage facilities? And what about the ongoing groundwater withdrawal that’s tied to land subsidence? Nothing a homeowner can do will fix any of these problems, no matter how much you tax an individual neighborhood.

    Why does the state continue to allow building on and filling of wetlands by purchasing mitigation credits elsewhere? Wetlands and their role in alleviating storm surge flooding are not mentioned in this paper, perhaps because you can’t put back what’s been destroyed and built over. Of course, not allowing building in wetlands would interfere with economic development, in spite of the long term costs of related flooding.

    The resiliency paper uses the “Flooding Frequency of VDOT Roads” from 2008 to 2012. I can’t speak to the accuracy for Portsmouth, but I can say that when the map shows no road in Mathews was flooded more than 4 times, it’s completely inaccurate. So how much worse are the areas showing higher rates of flooding? What role do the state roads and failing pipes under roads and blocked culverts have in recurrent flooding in a given area?

    Resiliency cannot be built from perceptions of sea level rise or by overlooking facts that point to the role of state responsibility for not maintaining road-related drainage and causing interference with natural streams.

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