Wake-Up Call: Virginia Beach's Hurricane Preparedness 3 Years After Matthew
For the city, Hurricane Matthew served as a wake-up call for more routine, procedural storm preparations.
By Peter Coutu
VIRGINIA BEACH -- Since her Windsor Woods home flooded in Hurricane Matthew three years ago, each new storm brings Katie Llewellyn waves of anxiety. And the same routine: She tracks the forecast, cleans the house and packs a go-bag.
During hurricanes Florence and Dorian -- which ended up largely sparing the region -- her family left home to stay with her parents.
Flooding is not something you forget," she said. "It is very scary -- that anticipation, waiting to see what's going to happen -- hoping for the best and getting ready for the worst."
Nearly three years ago this week, Hurricane Matthew walloped Virginia Beach with 14 inches in some areas, damaging roughly 2,000 structures to the tune of about $30 million.
The 500-year storm brought the city's worst flood in years.
"Matthew hit us, and it hit us hard," said acting City Manager Tom Leahy.
It came shortly after a tropical storm had dumped a foot of water on Hampton Roads, worsening the impact.
For many, Matthew was a wake-up call -- serving as a high-water mark for a city now wrestling with how to tackle flooding and sea level rise in the decades to come.
"It sparked a fire to start going," said Virginia Wasserberg, who became an outspoken flooding advocate after the storm swamped her home.
What Matthew did is it revealed all the holes in the system, where everybody was like, 'Oh, what public works has been saying all along has been true.'"
Now, years after the storm, the city has been strengthening requirements for drainage in new developments. Major projects -- new runoff drains, tidal gates and pump stations -- are planned for the area's hit hardest by Matthew, but the biggest ones are still years off. This spring, the city raised some taxes and fees to pay for new system upgrades. Virginia Beach also is nearing the end of two major flooding studies, one for sea level rise and another on stormwater, both of which began years before the hurricane.
But critics still say there isn't enough funding to adequately safeguard residents ahead of the next storm, as a backlog of maintenance issues persists and some projects face continued delays.
Flooding in Virginia Beach is complicated, influenced by several different factors. Increased rainfall, a foot of sea level rise since the 1960s and more development in high-risk areas has left several communities more vulnerable. And in the rural, southern part of the city, there is a different kind of flooding, where strong south winds push water up into Back Bay, soaking nearby neighborhoods.
"We have the data, and we believe that the climate is changing," Leahy said "There's two ways to look at it: Either the big storms are coming back more often, or the storms that come back every 100 years will have more rainfall with them."
And as the city continues planning for a changing climate, some are still dealing with the effects of Matthew's damage.
"Not Something You Forget"
When Llewellyn, 29, moved to Windsor Woods in 2015, she said she was unaware of the flood risk in the neighborhood. And like so many others, Matthew's forecast brought unexpected damage to the region, catching her off guard.
Rain started pummeling the area on a Saturday night, Oct. 8, 2016. About 2 feet of water stood in her garage, totaling her car. Inside her one-story home, another 14 inches laid waste to nearly everything. Couches, rugs, pictures, yearbooks, albums -- including the one with her wedding photos -- were all destroyed.
"It was just the overall loss of so many things," she said.
Her family left when the water started seeping through the walls of their home -- one of about 600 flooded in Windsor Woods.
The damage to the house and belongings inside totaled roughly $60,000 she said. They had flood insurance, which helped with most of the losses. For "months and months and months" after the storm, storage pods sat outside of her home and hundreds of others throughout the city.
In the years to come, many slowly started to recover from the disaster. Others, typically those without flood insurance, weren't so fortunate.
Two doors down from Llewellyn, a "keep out" sign is plastered on a vacant house.
"No one has inhabited it since. I don't think they've gutted it," she said. "I can only imagine what it's like inside."
Wasserberg, who estimated that her home experienced roughly $120,000 in damage, said she's heard of similar situations of flooded homes sitting untreated and vacant.
There are some people who haven't rebuilt their homes," she said. "I've heard horror stories of people who didn't do anything, and the house is just growing mold."
After Matthew, she decided to move to a less flood-prone property.
For the city, the hurricane served as a wake-up call for more routine, procedural storm preparations. Erin Sutton, the director of the city's emergency management office, said they "were caught off guard based on the crazy forecast."
The devastating results drilled home the point to prepare for the worst-case scenario as early as possible, and to take steps to open the emergency operations center days earlier, send alerts to residents and consider which areas to evacuate.
The recovery work also helped establish the city's relationship with volunteer organizations like the local United Way chapter. Sutton said that proved invaluable after the May 31 mass shooting, when those connections allowed the city to delegate responsibilities the day after the tragedy.
But even with the positive changes, fights over funding have continued.
Wasserberg is one of many who became increasingly vocal after Matthew, pushing city leaders to act on flooding. With a Virginia Beach man, she now runs Stop the Flooding NOW, a Facebook page created to document rising water in Windsor Woods.
For decades before Matthew, city leaders delayed upgrading the city's stormwater infrastructure, the Pilot previously reported.
Leahy said it's not that the city didn't know about flooding issues -- in some cases, public works had already identified solutions -- but it wasn't the highest priority.
The 2016 storm marked a turning point, increasing the urgency behind the work.
Finding a Balance
The city's main challenge is juggling between paying for new stormwater projects and keeping up with the systems already in place. Some say improving maintenance on the city's stormwater features is low-hanging fruit.
You don't put gas in the car and drive it for 20 years and never change the oil," Wasserberg said. "You don't dig a ditch in a neighborhood and in 20 years never go back."
With the funding currently allocated -- about $5 million a year -- the city is on a hundred-year cycle to maintain some of the 500 stormwater features in Virginia Beach. Ideally, that time frame would be cut in half, Leahy said.
"In just about every aspect of our maintenance, we could use more resources," Leahy said at a recent City Council meeting. "The backlogs are not what we'd like them to be."
The idea is to get the stormwater system functioning like new, or close to it. This type of work is more manageable in the short-term. But in some areas, the system is simply inadequate, either because of poor designs when communities were planned or because rainfall has become more intense in recent years.
It's tough to juggle the two tasks -- maintenance and improvements -- as both can carry significant costs.
We have to balance that out. It's tough. The big projects, they do take a lot of resources," Leahy said. "And we have to get out into the neighborhoods and keep up the systems."
City leaders have allocated more money to capital projects, which has delayed dealing with all the backlogs.
Not including maintenance or water quality projects, the city has 34 stormwater projects in its capital improvement plan. And 15 of those are funded for the first year, said Toni Alger, a stormwater engineer, in a recent presentation to the City Council. Five face delays.
Right now, the most ambitious proposal is public works' plan to tackle flooding in the areas hit hardest by Matthew -- but many improvements won't be seen for years.
The city's preliminary stormwater plan to protect more than 2,500 acres in the Windsor Woods, Princess Anne Plaza and the Lakes neighborhoods is projected to cost more than $350 million in total, according to city documents.
The main features include tide gates at three locations, 55,000 feet of new stormwater drains and two large pump stations. The plan could also include converting the Bow Creek Golf Course, near South Rosemount Road, into a place to store runoff alongside other park amenities, like nature trails, a playing field and sand volleyball courts.
Construction on the Windsor Woods pump station, for example, is projected to start around summer 2026 and take another four years to wrap up.
Wasserberg points to that and the neighborhood's planned tide gate -- which will cost roughly $6.7 million and get off the ground around the beginning of 2021 -- as the key to protecting the neighborhood, she said. But she's frustrated with the timeline.
While she says she's thankful they're in the works, she thinks the city should be moving faster.
Though some construction and maintenance has been done, city leaders have described the three years after Matthew as a transition period, with design work under way as Virginia Beach also nears the end of two major studies. Soon, residents might be able to see more tangible results, they say.
"We're going to start seeing a lot of action. I think that may be what folks want to see. They think we haven't been doing anything, but you have to do this design work. It's just like road building," Councilwoman Barbara Henley said at a recent meeting. "So much of it is in design and acquisition and all of those things that the people aren't seeing the work. But it's being done."
"We're ready to deliver, I hope."
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