To battle flooding problems, Hampton pitches no-wake zone for cars

Contact ReporterRmurphy@dailypress.com
No-wake zones for cars? If Hampton has its way, making waves on flooded streets will be illegal.

Carole Garrison has had it up to here with some careless drivers after major flooding earlier this month in Hampton.

Garrison's house and many others on Shoreline Drive looked more like islands than riverfront properties when waters all around the city swelled nearly 6.5 feet above normal levels during high tides for several days.

Hampton city staff say it was one of the city's 15 worst flooding events over the last 100 years. At its peak, the water closed 44 roads and left 30 structures damaged throughout the city.

Garrison was lucky – she got away with no serious damage to her home, though she'll have to replace a door and a window in a low room on the side of her house.

But it's not just the rising water that caused headaches for the 49-year-old NASA programmer and her neighbors.

"Even small cars … they cause waves and those waves go into houses and cause tens of thousands of dollars" in damage, Garrison told the Hampton City Council on Oct. 14.

The culprits largely aren't neighborhood residents trying to move their cars, she said, but people with jacked-up trucks looking for high water to slosh through.

"They think it's entertaining, but it's not so entertaining when it's your house," Garrison said Tuesday, pointing out the spots where the water is the deepest on Shoreline Drive. "If water gets in, you can't just clean up a little bit. You have to tear out walls and floors and it can cost thousands."

What's worse, she says, is that little can be done to stop them.

The city lets the neighborhood to put up a sign in Garrison's front yard warning of flooding but doesn't close the road. Hampton Police can ticket drivers who ignore road closures, but not for driving through flooded streets that remain open.

She said residents trying to spread awareness have been met with indifference or derision.

"When we explained it to (one man), he just laughed and floored his truck and made all these big waves and spun his wheels for as long as he could before his truck went forward," Garrison said.

Garrison, looking for a fix, thought back to her time in North Carolina, where the local government had started charging big bucks to remove cars from flood waters. Garrison said the new policy meant a lot fewer joyriders getting cars stuck – and looked to apply the same "money talks" thinking to Hampton.

We have no-wake zones for boats, Garrison thought. Why not one for cars?

City Manager Mary Bunting said wakes from vehicles are a persistent problem in Hampton, even after the city has tried to get the word out that speeding through flood waters damages nearby homes.

"We have stationed police officers out to try to warn people not to go through the waters and certainly not push water into people's homes as they do so, however, we cannot possibly man every area that gets flooded when there are major storms," Bunting said.

Bunting seized on the no-wake zone idea when Garrison pitched it. Now, the city has written up a pitch for state legislators to make making waves in your car a crime.

The suggested bill would make it illegal to drive a car or boat on a flooded street, alley, parking lot or highway fast enough to raise the level of the waters around it enough to possibly damage other vehicles or property. Doing so would be a Class 4 misdemeanor, punishable by a $250 fine.

The language includes an exemption for government vehicles and rescue craft. Hampton's legislative lobbyist will present the idea, along with a slate of other legislative priorities, at the City Council's work session Wednesday afternoon.

Hampton Councilwoman Teresa Schmidt said she's seen firsthand how wakes on flooded roads can affect people.

She recalls a nor'easter sometime after Hurricane Isabel when the owners of the now-closed Beach Market on Beach Road had piled up sandbags around their store to ward off flooding.

"They're blocking the water as it's inching up, they're ready for it. They were good, and would have been good, but then a truck goes by," Schmidt said. The water sloshed up and over the sandbags, washing over the wooden floor in the store. "Once it's in there, that's it."

Schmidt said she absolutely thinks a law would help, particularly if signs are posted in flood-prone areas reminding would-be wake creators that a few hundred dollars may come out of their pocket if they aren't careful.

"People don't realize that that little bit of water, that one last push, can bring the water into your home," she said. "I'd never thought of it being a law. You think, 'Come on guys, this is common sense,' but sometimes you have to make what should be common sense into law."

Joe Lerch, who handles transportation policy for the Virginia Municipal League, said there's a lot for state and local agencies to like in the idea.

Lerch said this would likely be particularly attractive to urban localities – those that own their own streets.

"The city owns the street … and if flooding from that street damages adjacent property, there's a certain liability issue to the city," Lerch said.

Lerch also said he sees this as a symptom of sea-level rise and expects more localities to need a way to deal with this kind of issue in the future.

Garrison said action can't come soon enough. Fuses are running short for neighbors in danger of costly repairs that could have been avoided with a little care from motorists.

"It seems to be getting more argumentative between the drivers and the people whose houses they're hurting. Something's going to happen. The police can't stop it, but somebody is going to," she said.

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

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