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Rural towns starved of funds to fight rising seas

September 4, 2014 - 12:39pm


(Reuters) — The town of Saxis, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay is losing three to five feet of shoreline a year and suffered damage during Superstorm Sandy. But like hundreds of rural communities along the coast, it is competing with much larger, more powerful neighbors for public funds to bankroll a response to rising seas.

Coastal engineers say communities have three options for dealing with rising water levels and increased flooding: defend the shoreline with natural or man-made barriers; adapt, such as by raising roads and buildings; or retreat.

New York City is planning a $20 billion mix of defense and adaptation measures — most notably construction of "The Big U," a 10-mile fortress of berms and movable walls around lower Manhattan. Mayor Bill de Blasio's office says three-quarters of the money needed over the next decade is already in hand from federal, state and local sources.

For places like Saxis, population 240, the options are more stark: retreat now or retreat later.

Many Saxis residents — watermen who harvest oysters, crabs and fish, and seafood industry workers — trace their ancestry to settlers in the 1600s and speak a language peppered with Elizabethan inflections. Some don't hold out much hope for the future.

"Little places like us, there's not going to be any help for us because whatever resources are available will be sucked up by the big cities to try to defend them," said Grayson Chesser, a decoy carver, hunting guide and Accomack County supervisor.

Belinda, Virginia, a nearby village where his grandfather was born, is one of several he cites that no longer exist, abandoned when frequent flooding made them uninhabitable. Families relocated to higher ground, where he resides today, but now it's flooding, too.

A decade ago, Saxis managed to get federal approval for a $3.2 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to build eight breakwaters that would slow the sea's advance. But the town couldn't scrape together its required contribution of nearly $1 million, so the plan was killed.

The 700 residents of Tangier Island, a better-known historic Chesapeake enclave, waited nearly two decades for $4.2 million in state and federal money to build a 430-foot-long seawall, jetty and stone revetment. The project is scheduled to be finished by 2017.

"It's becoming more and more competitive for federal funds in terms of protecting communities," said Curtis Smith, a planner with the Accomack-Northampton Planning District. So Saxis is "competing with Miami and New York and Virginia Beach."

Virginia Beach, Virginia, with a population of 438,000, has been the recipient of a federally funded seawall and two major sand projects totaling more than $150 million since 1996.

Some Saxis residents have raised their houses to reduce the risk of flood damage. But that's only a partial solution if the roads that connect them to grocery stores, hospitals and schools become impassable, Mr. Smith said.

There, too, rural areas compete for funding with more heavily trafficked urban areas.

Accomack County has more miles of road in jeopardy from rising sea levels than anywhere else in Virginia, a state study found. On the harder hit Chesapeake Bay side, some spots now flood nearly every full moon.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is struggling with the question of how to combat increased flooding in "low-volume, low-population areas," said Chris Isdell, the department's representative in Accomack County. "You're trying to fight back Mother Nature. ... How do you do that in a roadway that sits at sea level?"

Saxis residents may eventually have to face up to the same hard fate Mr. Chesser's grandfather's community did and abandon their homes.

"I wish I could say I thought Saxis would be saved, but there's no way. It costs so much money," Mr. Chesser said. "And even if you spend the money, I don't' think you can do it. I mean you just can't beat the ocean. You're going to lose every time."

 



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