Poquoson builds higher structures in low-lying lands

Contact Reporterjoreyes@dailypress.com
Poquoson builds higher structures in low-lying lands

For residents of Poquoson, flooding is nothing new.

According to the "Flood Information" page on the city's website, "Partial records and historical knowledge of tidal flooding in the city date back to its first settlement," and lists 1933, 1962, 1998 and 2003 as years of severe flooding.

Ed Proper, who lives on Messick Road, called flooding "just a part of life."

But since Poquoson was devastated by Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the low-lying city has accelerated its efforts to build higher to protect itself from flood damage, according to City Manager J. Randall Wheeler.

City Engineer Ellen Roberts said several factors, including rising sea levels, contribute to the city's flooding. She cited a study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science that found sea level has risen between 3 and 5.8 millimeters per year for the last few years.

"That's equivalent to the thickness of 1 or 2 nickels," she said, adding that change at that rate isn't immediately noticeable, but would have an effect over time. Other factors that contribute to flooding are rainfall intensity and duration, ground conditions, storm surges and tide cycles, Roberts said.

"We know about flooding," Wheeler said, pointing out that the city is surrounded by water on three sides. "Our citizens are good at protecting their property and homes." Since 2003, about 500 houses in the city have been raised, Wheeler said. None of the houses that were properly raised have been damaged by floods.

Roberts said new buildings — such as the new elementary school, public works building, pump station and fire station — were all built above the flood stage. New houses also have to be built 3 feet higher than the flood hazard level for a 100-year storm event, Roberts said.

Residents can apply to receive help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the city for raising their homes. Poquoson also participates in the National Flood Insurance Program. Roberts said the city's small population allows the city's staff to sit down with citizens and talk about how to address flooding concerns.

She highlighted a road construction proposal that would provide a second all-weather route in and out of Poquoson. Currently, Victory Boulevard is the only route to and from the city that does not flood, Roberts said.

Plans for the Wythe Creek Road widening project show a new roadway parallel to the existing Wythe Creek Road, which is a flood risk, Roberts said. The new road would be built above flood level.

Wheeler said initial plans for the roadway designed by the Virginia Department of Transportation did not account for flooding — Roberts used the city's modeling software to show the proper height the roadway needed to be, leading to the elevated design. She also hopes the current Wythe Creek Road can be repurposed as a path for pedestrians and cyclists if the project goes through.

The City Council unanimously approved the design on Dec. 12. VDOT is finalizing plans and the project is undergoing environmental review. Roberts said the project is expected to go out for bids in 2019.

Proper said flooding has not been an issue at his house in the eight years he's lived there, but he's seen his street flood several times. He pointed to a spot about 10 feet from the base of his house and said that's the closest water has come. He said when the roads flood, his family gets stranded at home for a while. "We understand it happens. We just cancel plans and deal with it."

About a mile away, near the corner of Poquoson Avenue and Ridge Road, Ed Hellmann said flooding has caused several issues for him in the 22 years he's lived in his home. The worst was Isabel, he said, and pointed to a spot on his house's brick crawl space a couple inches lower than his front door. "The water got to about there during Isabel," he said.

He had to replace the duct work and insulation under his house once the water receded, and he's done that same work four more times since then, most recently after his street flooded last fall.

Hellmann has a drill he goes through when he hears flooding may happen: He moves his vehicles to a parking lot on higher ground, takes the lawn chairs and grill from his backyard and puts anything on the ground in his shed up on a shelf.

The thought of moving has come to Hellmann, but he's never seriously considered it. "It's a cool place to live. There's good and bad about anywhere you go," he said.

Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692.

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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