Special Report: “The Rising Threat”

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – It’s been the launching point of countless humanitarian missions after natural disasters but now, Naval Station Norfolk is facing its own threat.

“It’s pretty significant. Based upon 100 years of measurements, we’re seeing enough of a rise every 10 years, the width of an iPhone 5,” said retired Navy Captain Ray Toll. “Every 20 years, the length of an iPhone 5.”

According to Apple, the length of an iPhone 5 is nearly five inches. Five inches every 20 years within the next century would mean the sea level could rise at least two feet.

Toll served in the Navy for 30 years in fields including oceanography, meteorology and surface warfare. Now, he works as the director of Coastal Resilience Research for Old Dominion University.

Toll says the effects of climate change are already impacting the base. During Hurricane Matthew, parts of the base flooded, like many other locations in our area.

The flooding made it difficult for the thousands who work on the largest naval base in the world to get around.

Toll says flooding isn’t just a problem related to Hurricane Matthew.

“Garden-variety of thunderstorms, if they’re bad enough, can flood certain main arteries of the base and you can’t get around. It hampers the ability of the Navy to man, train, and equip ships and submarines for the global fight on terrorism,” Toll said.

The federal government has noticed how climate change is effecting the base.

In 2013, President Barack Obama signed an executive order for agencies to prepare for climate change. Out of that order came the idea to create pilot programs in areas affected by climate change.

That year, Toll joined Old Dominion University in preparation for the program to start.

Toll says Hampton Roads was selected due it’s federal footprint.

In 2014, the Department of Defense also recognized the pilot program. The goal of the program for our area was to prepare for sea level rise and climate change.

The first phase of the project was completed in 2015. It involved finding out what was at stake in our area in regards to sea level rise.

The second part of the project was completed in June 2016 and it’s findings were reported in October at a presentation in Washington D.C.

“At it’s heart, it will create a tremendous burden for humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery, primarily for our men and women in uniform,” said the Honorable Dennis McGinn, who is the Assistant Secretary for the Navy-Energy, Installations and Environment.

McGinn said the Hampton Roads region was in a great place in preparing for sea level rise because there’s still time to plan.

He says a number of agencies and levels of government collaborated to come up with recommendations and ideas that would help prepare.

“The report creates a blueprint for coordination across governments of all level and the private sector in ways that make use more resilient to the effects of climate change,” McGinn said.

Some of the recommendations committees within the pilot program came up with include planning for scenarios with sea levels reaching a certain height, providing incentives, such as tax breaks for businesses implementing plans for sea level rise and developing building codes for construction and remodeling to prepare for rising water levels.

While experts do not know how high the waters will rise, it’s still important for the Navy and others in the community to be prepared.

“The Navy can’t build itself up as a fortress. All that would do is divert the problem elsewhere. What the Navy was seeking was an integrated, regional solution,” Toll said.

That solution involves local, state, and federal agencies working together to defeat the threat. Toll says by working together and using smart technology, costs to mitigate water levels in Hampton Roads would not be as high.

The Navy is already trying to be proactive.

In a statement from NAVFAC-Mid Atlantic, which plans and designs shore facilities, the command says it’s working to maintain and ensure climate-ready bases:

Our response to impacts will be based on sound scientific evidence and will enable us to continue to execute our mission.  We are taking a phased approach to this subject: 1. We are determining vulnerabilities and evaluating risks. 2. We are conducting detailed planning and execution. 3. Finally we will share our successes and learn from our progress for future planning and execution.  Today we can’t draw a bright line anymore between our installations and forward operations. Increasingly, our bases provide real-time support to forward forces, as well as generate force structure. Weather-caused disruptions to the commercial power grid can impact that support and impede work preparing our platforms to deploy.  As an ongoing effort we are reviewing design criteria for piers and buildings to ensure we can accomplish the NAVFAC mission, which in turn helps enhance Naval power at sea and from the sea.”

The pilot project hopes to take what it learns in Hampton Roads and use it as a model for other naval communities throughout the world but one major concern is funding.

Toll says with the next incoming presidential administration, the project and supporters will use incentives like business growth and incubating new technology to follow up with what they’ve planned. He says funding is important and programs must be synchronized across government levels to make sure the area is ready for changes in the sea.

“We live by the water, we need to defend the region so our future generations can enjoy what we enjoy,” Toll said.

If you’d like to learn more about the pilot project, you can visit The Center for Sea Level Rise website.