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Norfolk leaders are weighing whether to move forward with one of the most ambitious public works projects in the city’s history.

The massive plan, 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. The most visible are a floodwall and series of levees.

But many people are concerned about what — and who — is not included.

Residents of the historically Black neighborhoods on the city’s Southside say they’ve been excluded from discussions about the project and are upset the floodwall will not reach their communities.

Environmental advocates also worry the plan leaves out growing issues like sea level rise and more rainfall without making that clear to citizens. 

City Council members were set to vote on the plan earlier this month, but pulled it from the agenda. The earliest it may return is April 11.

The imminent decision is whether to approve a Project Partnership Agreement with the Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Norfolk chief resilience officer Kyle Spencer recently told council members that would unlock $400 million awarded under the 2021 federal infrastructure law and move the project into the construction phase.

“But even more than that, it's really showing that strong partnership between the city and the Army Corps of Engineers for our project,” Spencer said.

The plan’s been in the works for years. The Army Corps identified Norfolk as an area vulnerable to coastal storms during analysis directed by Congress after the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Resilient Norfolk is the city’s long-term vision for how to prepare the city for the increased threat of storm surge flooding in the decades to come.

The federal government is expected to foot 65% of the bill, leaving Norfolk on the hook for about $930 million. They received $25 million from the state so far through a flood preparedness grant program funded by Virginia’s proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. 

The downtown floodwall is the plan’s most talked-about and recognizable feature. But that’s only part of it.

The plan is broken into five phases, starting with the floodwall. 

Alternating with a series of levees and nature-based elements, it would wrap around the waterfront on the Elizabeth River from the Campostella Bridge area to Lambert’s Point, including Ghent, Freemason and downtown.

That includes extending 2,750 feet of existing floodwall in downtown built by the Corps in 1971.

Sections of the wall would look more like a raised earthen berm with a walkable and bikeable trail on top, according to renderings.

phases sized
Map via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A map shows the first phase of Norfolk's floodwall project.

Later phases of the plan include pump stations, tide gates and surge barriers at Pretty Lake, the Lafayette River and Broad Creek.

The final phase is what city officials call “non-structural” in nature. 

In some neighborhoods  — including Campostella, Elizabeth Park, Berkley and Willoughby — the city would not build any physical barriers like a floodwall.

Instead, they plan to work with homeowners there to do individual floodproofing improvements, including elevating homes and filling basements.

According to the Resilient Norfolk website, that focuses on “reducing the damages from flooding, not preventing flooding.”

Residents of some of those neighborhoods across the Elizabeth River say that’s not enough to protect their already marginalized communities. 

Some were informed about the project just weeks before the City Council’s planned vote. 

Kim Sudderth, a city planning commissioner and Berkley resident, told council members her neighborhood floods during just about any storm.

“So when I heard that there was a plan to protect my home from storm surges, I was relieved,” she said. “Until I realized that where I live in Berkley … my home was left out of any structural solutions.”

She said she saw an Army Corps map that delineated the wall’s boundaries using red lines, which made her think of the historically discriminatory housing practice known as redlining.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh God, it's happening again. And it's happening to me,’” Sudderth said.

Larry Skyles, president of the Beacon Light Civic League in Berkley, said he doesn’t think the current Resilient Norfolk plan is equitable.

“Historically, predominantly Black communities have been an afterthought when resources were allotted,” Skyles said. “We want to be assured that our communities benefit from equity and inclusion.”

Many speakers held signs and urged officials to follow the principles of EJ40, an environmental justice initiative created by President Joe Biden. 

It aims to ensure that 40% of the “overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution,” according to the initiative website.

Despite the price tag, the Army Corps project will also not address other major local sources of flooding.

“It's only like Hurricane Isabel,” said Skip Stiles, head of Norfolk nonprofit Wetlands Watch. “It is not nuisance flooding. It's not rainfall flooding. It's not sea level rise.”

Stiles’ organization has been urging officials for years to study more in-depth how the project could impact local water quality.

But he also thinks city leaders should outline how they plan to handle flooding issues outside of this project.

“We’ve got to build a floodwall, there's no doubt about that,” Stiles said. 

“But tell me where it fits into the overall citywide strategy for the next 15 or 20 years. How much do I, as a citizen in Norfolk, expect to pay? What am I going to get from it?”

At a council briefing last month, City Manager Chip Filer acknowledged that future work to address tidal flooding will have to come out of the city’s pocket.

Councilwoman Andria McClellan said at the meeting that Norfolk’s in a unique position in terms of receiving federal dollars to prepare for, rather than recover from, a natural disaster.

“This is not going to fix our sunny day nuisance flooding, stormwater issues, precipitation issues. … This is for big storm events, that's going to save our city,” she said. “So this is an existential threat. … We’ve just got to get on it.”

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