Virginia Coastal Adaptation and Climate "Czar" Gets to Work

Jun 4, 2019

Ann Phillips, Rear Admiral, US Navy (Ret.) speaking last year when she was appointed by Gov. Northam.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed retired Navy Admiral Ann Phillips to spearhead efforts for coastal adaptation to climate change.

After nearly 31 years in the Navy where she implemented climate change adaptation plans, she is traveling the state putting together a coastal master plan. 

She hopes it will inform a tight-fisted and, in some cases reluctant, General Assembly to fund statewide climate change adaptation and protection when it reconvenes this winter.

As key-note speaker during a recent forum on funding flooding resilience, Ann Phillips did not mince words.  "As I talked to people about what options are, in passing, to deal with the future, I have a sense that many homeowners feel that the cities are going to bail them out. And that the cities feel that the state should bail them out.  And that the state thinks the federal government should bail it out," Phillips told a recent conference at the College of William and Mary. "And in actuality, none of those things are going to happen. And to get to the point where we're going to get big federal dollars in here without planning ahead, relying on a storm, is pure folly."

Besides home to the country's fourth largest container ship port by volume, Virginia's coastal waterways are home to a multitude of defense agencies and NASA. Virginia ranks first in defense spending at 8.9 percent of its Gross Domestic Product and first in defense personnel spending.  "All of these assets are extremely valuable to the nation. They are unique, they are indispensable and in many cases irreplaceable. So, where they are is where they must be to execute their mission," Phillips said.

The General Assembly has not stepped up to the task. One example, they have yet to appropriate money to a fund they established in 2016 to create a low-interest loan program to help residents and businesses subject to recurrent flooding.

After her speech, Phillips, who has no funding for staff, sat down to talk about her new job.  "One of my personal things is the first iteration is first do no harm. Let's see what people are doing. You have to understand where they are and for me to do that I have to go meet them. I have to go talk to them and let them tell me 'I'm really interested in this, I'm not at all interested in that'" Phillips said.  "And every time I do that I learn something. Whatever perspective you might imagine they have, often that's not correct. Unless you're on the ground you don't get it."

Flooding at NASA Wallops Flight Facility earlier this year.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

And it's not just coastal Virginia. "I keep bumping into riverine, I keep bumping into rainfall... the need for a flooding monitoring network statewide. The need for updating projected floodplain mapping statewide."

Virginia's changing climate also means the potential for greater health risks from disease.  "Fortunately, Virginia Department of Health has just started a working group to look at pandemics statewide, a climate change working group, to look at these impacts, future impacts."

Funding is the biggest issue for all states facing flooding. For Virginia, sinking lands along the coast adds to the urgency. Phillips will continue meeting with communities and planning districts to include what they've already been doing in this first step of creating a state master plan.  "There's just so many different kinds of things to pull together. It's fascinating but it's also quite daunting," Phillips admitted. "We absolutely have a focus on environmental justice. How do we make sure that's adequately represented? How do we make sure tribal interests are adequately represented? They must have a seat at the table. We just don't want to leave people out. I worry about that all the time, what am I forgetting, what am I forgetting?"

Also breathing down the neck of Phillips and the General Assembly, maintaining Virginia's triple-A credit rating while generating big bills to protect and make communities more resilient to climate change.

During the last few years, William & Mary Law School and the Virginia Coastal Policy Center have been holding a series of climate change forums bringing in experts to discuss possible solutions to Virginia's flooding problems due to rising seas and sinking lands along its coasts.

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