Rising seas threaten everything from Wallops to resorts

Because of accelerated sea-level rise, Delmarva may look very different in 30-40 years....
Manteo, N.C., residents navigate streets that were flooded by Hurricane Irene in August. Rising tides are likely to mean more frequent coastal flooding. Credit: ©John Bazemore/Associated Press

One of Delmarva’s real gems — Wallops Island and the rapidly growing NASA flight facility that is located there — is taking wise steps to ensure its costly and critical infrastructure isn’t inundated by a rising sea level.

A street in Dewey Beach floods in a steady rain in July 2013. (File Picture)

A street in Dewey Beach floods in a steady rain in July 2013. (File Picture)

NASA is well aware of the threat posed by rising sea level. With $9 million of construction in progress and a complex of buildings, launch pads and more, it can’t afford not to be proactive about a projected 2-foot rise in sea level by 2060.

Taking a cue from Hurricane Irene, which cause $3.8 million in damage to the island, NASA subsequently extended a seawall to protect the shoreline and added sand to the beach. When Hurricane Sandy arrived, Wallops was ready and instead of flooding, power outages and damage like that wrought by Irene, there was no flooding, the power stayed on and an Antares test rocket remained on the launch pad without problems.

It’s no surprise that NASA continues to study projected future scenarios and is not afraid to spend money to protect its investment — $42 million after Irene and following Sandy, another $12 million.

That’s good news for all Maryland Lower Shore and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where Wallops is a major employer and economic driver. What’s happening and being studied or monitored by NASA, however, has implications for all of Delmarva and beyond.

According to NOAA’a website, there is strong evidence global sea level is now rising at an accelerated rate and will continue to do so. A sea level rise of 2 feet — which is at the high end of a projected range by 2100 — would inundate much of the Mid-Atlantic region, according to a NOAA projection — including most of the Delmarva peninsula.

Already coastal resort areas are rightly concerned about FEMA’s latest flood maps.

Much of Ocean City, surprisingly, has been exempted from flood insurance requirements, prompting an unexpected sort of worry: Scientists are concerned about sea-level rise and increasing flood hazards, yet many properties are in danger of becoming uninsured, leaving owners unable to rebuild in case of catastrophic flooding.

This is one threat to property values. The floods themselves, obviously, are another. And it’s not just about storms like Irene or Sandy. As the sea level rises, tidal flooding is an increasing risk. However, like Wallops, Ocean City has been proactive about beach replenishment and dune restoration efforts — which makes sense considering the real estate investment on that barrier island, and which is also probably a factor in FEMA’s downgrading of portions of the island. The good news about the downgrade is that insurance rates should also be decreased.

Somerset County is a different matter altogether.

Crisfield, one of the county’s two largest municipalities, was hit unexpectedly hard by Sandy, with rapidly rising floodwaters that no one had foreseen, leaving many residents stranded on upper floors waiting to be rescued. Scientists have since determined that the former seafood capital lies in a location that’s geologically prone to more of the same. Smith Island, already shrinking because of erosion, is in such peril that federal authorities tried to force its residents to relocate to the mainland by denying them funding to rebuild or repair. That didn’t work; it’s hard to convince a community to abandon its heritage and homeland.

But the post-Sandy FEMA flood maps include more than 10,000 additional acres in flood plains, which will could have a devastating effect on building requirements, flood insurance and more.

A 2002 U.S. Geological Survey study indicates Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County will be underwater by 2050, although FEMA removed 17,000 acres in Dorchester from its 100-year floodplain.

In addition to the threat from the ocean, the Chesapeake Bay has its own unique problems — its waters are rising faster than the ocean, threatening the western edge of the peninsula.

Local and state authorities must do what they can, but in 30-40 years, Delmarva may be a very different place. The first step is to follow the examples of Wallops, Ocean City and much of coastal Delaware by acknowledging the threat and taking steps now to mitigate future damage.

ARE YOU WORRIED? Are FEMA’s new flood maps or the threat of rising sea levels a concern? Share your thoughts in a letter to the letter. Send your letter to [email protected]

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