Isle of Wight will address sea level rise in next comprehensive county plan

hismith@dailypress.com

Isle of Wight County officials aren't extremely worried about sea level rise, though it will be addressed in the county's next comprehensive plan under a new state obligation.

County officials have relatively low concerns compared to many surrounding Hampton Roads localities, County spokesman Don Robertson said in an email.

The area does experience flooding after hurricanes and storms, Robertson said. Holley Run Drive washed out after Hurricane Matthew, said Rex Alphin, who serves on the Board of Supervisors and lives in Zuni. He maintains a 1,400-acre farm on River Run Trail with his father, Bob Alphin.

This year, for the first time, both of the 2-acre dams on the farm burst during the heavy rain from Hurricane Matthew.

"It's the first time that's happened," Alphin said by phone. The dams both withstood Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Isabel in 2003, he said. "But Matthew was too much for it and took it out," Alphin said.

The county is made up of 363 square miles, and 80 percent of this is land area, according to a state mitigation plan report. The area contains relatively flat, but rolling terrain with average elevation of approximately 80 feet above sea level. The land generally dips to the northeast from a plateau west of Bethel Church, and from that same plateau, the land dips to the northwest and west.

Swamps, ravines and creeks in the county drain to the James, Blackwater River and Nansemond rivers, according to the report.

Flood zones in the county include areas nestled along the Blackwater River and the James River, Robertson said.

Ted Herrala, owner of Walters Outdoor Power Equipment, on Walters Highway one mile from the Blackwater River, said his business floods anywhere from a couple of inches to a couple of feet when the county sees heavy rainfall in short periods of time.

When he opened the business in 1981, he didn't know a swamp ran through the site, which drains to the Blackwater River. So when Hurricane Floyd came through in 1999, and flooded the store with 5 feet, 2 inches of water, Herrala didn't have flood insurance. He obtained flood insurance soon after, he said. Since then, the business has flooded every three or four years, he said, or anytime the area sees between 6 and 8 inches of rain in a short period of time.

Hurricane Matthew brought 4 feet, 2 inches of water into the store. Herrala has prepared for floods before, but the volume from Matthew was unexpected, since forecasts had called for 1 to 3 inches of rain.

"Since we've done this so many times, it's just kind of second nature," Herrala said by phone. "You don't even think about it. But this one was pretty bad."

Herrala said he's seen an increase in amount of heavy rainfall in the county over the past 16 years. Isle of Wight County has received grants from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Program over the past 17 years to assist with shoreline erosion in the area, which occurs when wind kicks up over the river and creates waves, said Andrea Clontz, emergency management coordinator for the county.

Some of the grants were used to elevate homes in flood zones, and some funds were used to acquire property in flood zones, Robertson said.

Ray Toll is a leader of the two-year Pilot Project by Old Dominion University and other partners to prepare for sea level rise in Hampton Roads. Toll, an ODU researcher who assists with an ocean data project by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Virginia is dealing with two issues: the sea rising, and the land sinking.

The Pilot Project includes studying Hampton Roads to understand what problems the localities are experiencing and coming up with ways to address these issues. Hampton Roads localities face a number of identical issues, he said.

"Flooding is going to get worse," Toll said. The effects of storms will be exacerbated, he said.

The flood zone ordinance adopted by Isle of Wight County requires a one-and-a-half foot elevation for all residential structures, meaning the lowest floor of a structure built in the floodplain must be elevated to at least that height. The county is required by the Code of Virginia to address sea level rise in its next comprehensive plan, which will likely be complete in sometime in 2018, Robertson said.

Exactly which strategies the county will use to address the concern of sea level rise will be determined during the comprehensive plan process, which is set to begin this fiscal year, Robertson said.

Smith can be reached by phone at 757-510-1663.

High water

This occasional series looks at the current state of sea level rise in Peninsula-area communities and how their governments are responding.

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