Hampton residents hope for the best as city grapples with rising tides

Contact Reporterrmurphy@dailypress.com

Tess Matteson refuses to leave her Raymond Drive home, no matter how high the water gets.

She's lived in the house, which looks out on a branch of the Back River, since 1961. Matteson has seen water cover the floor of the living room she sits serenely in now three times.

The original wood floors had to be replaced in favor of water-resistant tile and waterlog lines are visible on some of the wooden furniture, a foot or so off the tile.

She's fearless and stubborn. The renovation crews had to work around her, with big fans blowing the moisture out of the house after Hurricane Irene.

"I'm a survivor," 94-year-old Matteson says.

Glen Besa, her son-in-law and the former director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, says the house never flooded before Hurricane Isabel. The wooden bulkhead at the edge of the yard, which borders the creek, is covered by water with alarming regularity these days, Besa said.

Recent NASA projections from the nearby Langley facility peg potential sea level increases as high as 5 feet by the end of the century.

"This area will be gone," Besa said. "Tess refuses to leave. What can I do?"

Matteson's resolve may be uncommon, but her stories of coping with rising waters in Hampton are not.

Flood maps have been redrawn recently, with 100-year flood plain delineations creeping ever inward. Many areas of Hampton have long had flooding issues that have worsened in recent memory, particularly when major storms pass through and overtax the drainage infrastructure.

"We see that inexorable march of a rising sea level," said Gayle Hicks, a water resources engineer with Hampton's public works department. "It's hard to say how much sea level rise we're going to get — predictions are all over the place."

Already, Hicks said, 30 percent of the flood insurance claims in Hampton occur outside the 100-year floodplain. "People are not really understanding that risk."

Recently, the city raised the minimum required height of houses' lowest finished floor in flood-prone areas from 1 foot above expected water levels to 3 feet.

Hicks said she'd expect more building code changes for residences near the water in the not-too-distant future, most likely from federal agencies.

Building codes may be updated in areas that could be subject to storm surges to prevent, for instance, a house getting knocked off a block foundation by wave action, Hicks said.

Hicks said the city is working to acquire many properties on a couple of blocks surrounding Indian River Creek, a problematic area in the south end of the city that officials are looking to turn into a stormwater retention area. The city has already bought several houses along the creek.

Edith Newkirk has lived in a house that backs up to the tidal creek since 1975.

She's had to put up sandbags to keep the water away from her home during storms.

"One nor'easter, the water came up like a hurricane," she said.

In that time, her flood insurance rates have risen like the water, from a modest $400 each year to now more than $2,500 annually.

Flood insurance rates are expected to continue to increase as the federal government reduces subsidies to bring the cost to homeowners closer to the real market cost.

Newkirk, a widow and former Army nurse who now lives on Social Security, says she could do a lot with that money.

"I don't want to live here paying all this high insurance," she said.

Her house hasn't made the city's buy list just yet, so she waits and watches the pecan trees outside her window, which she says have sunk as much as 5 feet in recent years.

The twin trees, which used to be laden with pecans every year, now hardly bear anything, as they sink little by little.

City engineer Hicks said that besides what's been done on those projects and continued efforts to maintain coastlines and beaches, the only thing on the agenda to tackle sea level rise now is to talk to the citizens about it and start large-scale planning in earnest.

"You can't just sit back and legislate that and make decisions on your own," she said. "You really need to include the public in those discussions. They need to be vested in those decisions."

As more and more in Hampton are declared to be living in flood zones, those conversations may need to happen sooner rather than later.

"As sea level rises, it's really only going to get worse," Hicks said. "It's not going to get better."

Murphy can be reached by phone at 757-247-4760.

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