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Increased Flooding in Virginia Predicted

Ryan Young

Scientists are documenting increasingly higher temperatures each year and climate change is not really in question anymore. 

Once bare alpine mountains are sprouting new vegetation, never before seen at those elevations, allowing invasive species to thrive.

In this story, we look at climate change at the lowest altitudes: The Virginia coast.

That's where increasing flooding is raising the question:  stay put or head for higher ground.

It’s not so much those blockbuster storms like Hurricane Sandy. It’s the less dramatic, but increasingly common, ‘sunny day flooding,’ also called ‘nuisance flooding,’ that takes a toll on people and property.

Anamaria Bucvic is a research geographer at Virginia Tech.  She’s studying how people cope with the increase in flood days that hamper their daily activities and cause damage to infrastructure.

“And that really can affect people's livelihoods and their ability to maintain their regular duties. For example, we conducted a survey among residents in the city of Hampton, asking them, ‘what are their flood experiences?’ And we found out that among the leading causes they face, are difficulty to commute to work, due to that roads that are flooded, school delays and closures, business closures” and more.

And it takes a toll, maybe not all at once, but the slow drip of disruption is poised to only get worse if trends continue.

“We found out that some of the flooding has negative impact on home values. So, it's not that they experienced major damage, like after big hurricanes, when 50 or 60- percent of a home is damaged. It's a frequent chronic, disruption to their livelihoods. There are also costs from all of that, they need to deal with.” 

Bukvic is exploring how people make their decisions about whether to stay in a flood prone place or to pack up and move. And what she’s finding is, people who have what’s known as a ‘strong sense of place,’ are more likely to stay put.  

“The premise was, and our study confirms, that in rural locations, sense of place is stronger than in urban locations.”

Bukvic has studied serious and consistent flooding, in places like Hampton Roads, Virginia and Miami, Florida, and what she’s seeing makes her worry about people’s safety if they are in a flood zone or even near it. 

“I think, sometimes they are unintentionally maybe putting themselves at risk, however, a strong sense of place can also lead to stronger sentiments that can drive creativity and innovation, that they can maybe use to cope with hazards for longer.”

This kind of resilience and self-sufficiency are characteristics she found in her studies, that help people cope with the ravages they face from increasingly frequent floods and the downstream inconveniences and problems that go with them.

And it’s not only coastal communities that are now facing increasing flooding.

“Just like in coastal communities, places here in Southwest Virginia will have to deal with more water.”

Bukvic’s research on increased flooding, as well as Lynn Resler’s studies on mountain top terrain change, represent the highs and lows of climate disruption.  Both researchers see their work as not only diagnostic, but also predictive of what we can expect in the future if trends continue.  

“Here in Southwest Virginia, we don't have oceans and the issues with sea level rise and storm surge. But we do have a lot of mountains and rivers." Since we expect “extreme and frequent rain events over the next few decades, the risk of river surges and flash floods will probably increase here as well. And we may experience, just like coastal communities, more flood damages to properties and infrastructure.” 

And if that comes to pass, she says, we ultimately have to face some decisions, whether to invest in more floodproofing for homes, buildings and infrastructure in and near floodplains or consider re-locating them altogether.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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