"A City of Creeks" Struggles to Deal with Increased Flooding

Feb 13, 2019

You've probably heard coastal Virginia is sinking. That leads to more flooding, even on sunny days, because sea levels are rising, storms are stronger and currents are changing.

In the city of Hampton, high tides can block roads and creep into parking lots, yards and homes.

Now, the community is shopping for solutions with the help of Louisiana and Dutch consultants.

Mary and Robert Mack place a dot sticker on their neighborhood, along the Newmarket Creek where flooding is a recurring problem.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Virginia Montgomery was among some 100 city of Hampton residents who live near Newmarket Creek. They came to hear about potential solutions to flooding problems. Like Montgomery, they were asked to place a dot on a map to indicate their neighborhood. "Okay, underwater," Montgomery quipped as she added her dot.

Terry O'Neill leads the Resilient Hampton initiative that brought experts together for a week-long workshop and this meeting. The city is targeting neighborhoods along Newmarket Creek for its first flood resilience pilot project. "The creek itself runs through and touches many, many different neighborhoods, so it's not just a one neighborhood approach," O'Neill says. "It runs through some commercial areas, so it's a very complex system and while very, very, challenging if we can come up with strategies that work it will put us in a good place to apply those throughout the community."

Far left, Steven Slabbers, Dutch landscape architect and urban planner with Netherlands-based Bosch Slabbers.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

The Roads in Hampton Roads refers to the deep water channel and to the land around it, which nowadays is literally miles of roads and parking lots. For Dutch landscape architect and urban planner, Steven Slabbers, this is strange.  "I see so little people here outside on the streets. I see so little people walking because there are so few opportunities to walk," Slabbers notes. "So, I also want to promote that, to deliver an environment that invites people to walk to exercise, to meet other people."

Don't even get him started about all those parking lots. "We don't have those huge, huge, huge parking greens with only asphalt where no water can get through. That's ridiculous," he says.

Hampton is a city of creeks.

Besides Newmarket, Slabbers noticed other creeks are hidden in back yards and behind businesses, preventing people from seeing, using and caring for them.  "Hampton is a city of creeks," Slabbers notes. "So much water. How can we make that water more visible and enjoyable? And how can we make people live with the water, facing the water, instead of turning their back to the water?"

As lands subside, storm drainage has become another problem. Catherine and Isiah Roberts have lived next to the creek since 1972. They say it floods into their yard during nor'easters. Catherine Roberts says debris flows down the creek from neighboring communities. "We're right down from Newport News, so they clean out their stuff and improve their drainage system and we get the rest of the stuff,"she says. "A couple of the neighbors, we try to keep it cut down on the back so its' not so much trash there, but still, we flood."

Catherine and Isiah Roberts have lived along the Newmarket Creek and say parking lots, development and debris contribute to flooding in their yard.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Though a bit more optimistic about some of the city proposals, Isiah Roberts has his doubts. "I've been talking for 40 years, for 40 years and I haven't seen anything did to that creek to help that water. Some of them parking lots could go away and the water would have somewhere to go. Because any parking lots, any building that you build and you put a parking lot that holds 600 or 700 cars, that's a basin."

So will he go to the next meeting? "Oh, yeah, I'll be at the next meeting and the next meeting and the next meeting," Isiah Roberts responds with a laugh.

The city has a tight timeline with plans to begin work this fall on smaller projects that neighborhoods can afford like rain gardens. For larger projects, the city is looking at private investment through environmental impact bonds.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.