Flood-Proofing Virginia's Military Bases Could Be A Very Expensive Venture

Nov 8, 2017

You may remember earlier this year when President Trump made a call to the mayor of Tangier Island. The island is slowly disappearing into the Chesapeake Bay, sinking at the same time sea-level is rising at a faster pace due to climate change. Trump told him not to worry. But his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, is doing the opposite, facing down climate change as a threat to national security.

Recently, top regional brass spent a day with scientists and policymakers at the William & Mary Law School. All agreed, it's going to be a long, very expensive battle.

Maureen Sullivan is deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health at the Pentagon. She told the audience about preparing answers for Secretary Mattis' confirmation hearings.

“We have these questions about climate change but we have no direction yet on what we should in fact say. So, we wrote very wishy-washy answers and they got submitted to Secretary Mattis's team. And they came back to us and said, ‘These are too weak. Secretary Mattis believes in climate change and the risk to national security.” And we were like, “uh, okay.’”

Not far from Washington, and just south of Tangier Island, is the world's largest naval facility in Norfolk. Nearby are Army and Air Force bases. It's also here that the land is sinking and waters are creeping in, frequently flooding airstrips, buildings, roads and housing.

Col. Keith Morrow, U.S. Army (Ret.), Deputy Mission Support Commander talks about flooding issues at Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

“Anything that would be a risk to our ability to maintain our national security could be considered a threat and climate is one of those risks.”

That's retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Ann Phillips who as a consultant, specializes in climate impact on national security.

“There are fire damages, there are water challenges, there are drought challenges. And here in this region there are sea-level challenges. So, preparation to be resilient for all of those challenges is something that is of course one of the many priorities of the Department of Defense as it prepares its forces to operate overseas and then to guarantee our national security.”

Some of those answers come in the form of strategic engineering with flood walls and storm surge barriers as well as building or maintaining natural barriers like oyster reefs and wetlands.

On the same day as this forum, the Army Corps of Engineers in Norfolk released a draft feasibility study for coastal storm risk management for the city of Norfolk. The cost is a staggering $1.8 billion. At Langley Air Force Base, deputy mission support commander Keith Morrow describes more basic strategies being used there to deal with recurrent flooding.

“For shoreline, that is rip-rap, marsh grass to shore that up. We've got some heavy-duty pump stations that we put in that can evacuate a significant amount of water quickly, and some other mitigation strategies to help us get past the storm issues and get our facilities functioning again.”

Map of Norfolk with potential placement of flood risk management structures. The study does not include the Naval Base.

Despite the costs associated with making Norfolk and military bases more resistant to flooding, many here like retired Rear Admiral Dave Titley, who founded the Navy Task Force on Climate Change, said they are heartened by the stance of the Pentagon and Army Corps toward climate change.

“If this is a marathon we are at about the 100-yard part, so we have a long, long ways to go. The good news is we at least realize there's a race on and we've found the race course, and we're starting down it.”

Next March, the Pentagon will issue a report on the impacts of climate change on national security.

You can find a draft  study on coastal storm risk management for the city of Norfolk here.

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