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Over the past month, residents of Norfolk’s Southside have expressed concerns about a massive federal floodwall project that would largely exclude their communities.

“Historically, predominantly Black communities have been an afterthought when resources were allotted,” Larry Skyles of the Beacon Light Civic League in Berkley told City Council last month.

“We want to be assured that our communities benefit from equity and inclusion.”

The city’s now changing course. Officials plan to ask the federal government to amend the agreement to possibly include physical flood barriers in those communities, on the south side of the Elizabeth River.

The massive effort, dubbed Resilient Norfolk, is a $2.6 billion suite of projects intended to protect the city from major storms in the face of climate change. Norfolk’s share is about $930 million, with the rest covered by the federal government.

It does not mitigate tidal flooding issues linked to sea level rise.

A downtown floodwall is the plan’s most talked-about and recognizable feature. 

But it also includes levees, pump stations, tide gates and surge barriers in later phases at Pretty Lake, the Lafayette River and Broad Creek.

The final phase of Resilient Norfolk as currently proposed uses what officials call “non-structural” solutions in certain historically Black neighborhoods along the Southside.

“We were told some basements would be filled with concrete and some homes would be elevated on stilts,” Sharon Hendrick, president of the Campostella Civic League, told WHRO. “And that wasn’t sufficient enough for us.”

Amid the equity concerns, the City Council postponed a vote last month on a Project Partnership Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Council members are now scheduled to vote on it Tuesday, along with a new resolution meant to address residents’ concerns.

It would allow the Norfolk District of the Army Corps to ask federal headquarters to change the agreement. 

Congress would then have to approve the changes and update the Water Resources and Development Act in 2024, according to district spokesperson Mark Haviland.

“This particular challenge to policy is unprecedented but there is an opportunity to support significant change,” Haviland said in an email. 

The Corps is committed to working with the city and community leaders “to advocate for that change,” he said.

Photo via City of Norfolk

A map shows the scope of the first phase of the Coastal Storm Risk Management project.

At issue is the way the U.S. Army Corps evaluates environmental projects using a cost-benefit analysis.

The agency first gets congressional approval to study a potential flood mitigation project, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Corps then analyzes the costs of the project, like for construction and operations, weighed against its potential benefits, including reducing future damages and emergency costs. 

The results help guide if and how officials recommend moving forward.

But the economic analysis often leaves out social factors like an area’s historic or sentimental value.

“The qualitative value, not the quantitative value,” said Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander. 

He noted the area’s history goes back centuries, none of which is considered in a straightforward monetary study.

Kate Quigley, an economist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Hampton Roads officials at a sea level rise forum last year that wealthy homes can beat out those from lower-income areas in a straightforward analysis of property to save. 

“That results in a situation where projects protecting high value properties are going to get approved more often than projects that are protecting low property values,” Quigley said. “And that's when you can have inequities.”

Haviland with the Army Corps said Norfolk District commander Col. Brian Hallberg and Mayor Alexander met with civic groups a couple weeks ago and agreed they should further study ways to lower flood risk along Pescara and Spotico creeks.

Their request would push federal officials to allow social impacts in an updated cost-benefit analysis.

Alexander said the changes are supported by both Virginia senators, Congressman Bobby Scott and the local Army Corps.

The resolution does not affect current work on the project, Haviland said. Officials are working to finish the design for the first phase of the floodwall along the downtown waterfront.  

The city estimates to complete the entire Resilient Norfolk project by 2032.

Hendrick with the Campostella Civic League said residents never opposed the project but simply want to be included.

“I’ve gone through a lot of emotions as far as this project goes because it is such a huge project,” she said. “But we’re pretty confident that they’ve heard our cries and will do the right thing.”