Editorial: A frightening scenario

L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

Halloween is just a few days away. Y’all want to hear a really scary story?

Scientists predict Hampton Roads will see some of the highest rates of sea-level rise in the country, leading to regular flooding of homes, businesses and critical infrastructure. The generally understood figure — the one used by government officials as they make planning decisions — is that the region will see 4.5 feet of relative sea-level rise by 2100.

No need to take our word for it, or the scientists for that matter. With a King Tide happening this weekend, Hampton Roads residents will again see the problem all around them, with moderate tidal flooding expected to be about 3 feet higher than normal.

Obviously we can’t fight the moon to stop the tidal flooding. But we can prepare for the long-term by accelerating our resilience efforts to better protect our communities for what is coming.

Here’s what we know: The expected flooding from a combination of higher seas and sinking land poses an existential threat to the future of the region. Left unaddressed, vulnerable places will be rendered unlivable. Vacating some of the most expensive real estate will cause property tax revenues to plummet, imperiling municipal government services. It’s a nightmare scenario.

Those little ghosts and goblins who will be tap-tap-tapping on your door Monday night in search of treats? Well, our nation’s average life expectancy means most of them will still be here in 2100. That extraordinary jump in sea levels will happen in their lifetimes.

Sorry to say, this horror story actually gets worse: We are not doing nearly enough to make our communities more resilient, to protect our region from the damage recurrent flooding will cause. There are some among us who would even undo what progress has been made. Pretty ghoulish, right?

Virginia and Hampton Roads are doing more than ever before to make this area more impervious to flooding. The legislature has taken important steps to move the commonwealth away from a reliance on fossil fuels and toward green energy. And membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has generated more than $452 million for Virginia; 45% of that revenue goes to the Community Flood Preparedness Fund to pay for resilience projects.

But that’s still not nearly enough — and not nearly fast enough — to blunt the effects residents are already seeing in their homes, on city streets and everywhere near the water (and plenty of places that aren’t).

Routine flooding — including the tidal flooding that happens without significant storm activity or heavy downpours — isn’t the sort of threat that appears like a killer in a scary movie. It wouldn’t make theatergoers leap out of their seats or cause you to spill the popcorn all over the couch.

No, recurrent flooding is the slowly creeping, insidious problem that sneaks up on its victims. Before you realize that, hey, you’ve never seen water pooling in that part of the yard or at that intersection or in that neighborhood, it may be too late.

But unlike the latest slasher flick, this story doesn’t have to end in misery and regret. People throughout the region are aware of the problem — it’s hard to miss, after all — and are pushing for solutions. They are engaging government officials, working with nonprofits and participating in efforts to bring additional urgency to the problem.

Among these is this week’s citizen science project called “Catch the King” that will see hundreds of volunteers fan out throughout the region to measure high tides using their smartphones. This is the fifth year of the event, which has generated invaluable data for scientists and planners to study. For more information, visit wetlandswatch.org/catchtheking.

This situation may be scary, but it isn’t hopeless — not if we commit to doing more to address flooding and protect our communities.