VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. ― At 6 p.m. Sunday, officials gathered at Ocean Lakes High School to consider the effects of sea level rise on Virginia Beach in an effort to determine once and for all if Virginia’s most populous city is worth saving. Mayor Will Sessoms, city council members, university professors, and environmentalists facilitated a public forum for concerned residents and victims of recurrent flooding and hurricane damage.
“The reality of a changing climate is not in dispute here in Virginia Beach,” Dr. David Lorenza of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began. “We see it every day when the Chick-fil-A drive through is flooded again and the parking lot at the mall is still underwater.”
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Council members urged residents to think realistically about the threat posed by frequent flooding and more intense storms. “We have to adapt to these changes,” Councilwoman Leonda Trainor said, pointing out that Mount Trashmore could be underwater by 2100.
The discussion was quickly dominated by two opposing trains of thought: a vocal minority that thought it best to expect and prepare for future disasters and a majority that would rather take it one flood at a time and maybe move to Chesapeake down the road. Christy Lynne, a mother of four, argued that the two Southside cities are “pretty much the same, except we have the ocean and they have more farms.”
While experts have continually highlighted the devastating effect small changes in the Earth’s atmosphere would have on the local economy, a few bold visionaries on the City Council instead saw opportunity. “People remember cities that are destroyed by natural disasters for centuries,” mused Councilwoman Theresa Rhodes. “We have a unique marketing potential on our hands here.”
Others were excited about the opportunity to improve the city’s aesthetic. “I implore you to walk three blocks down Atlantic Avenue in the middle of the summer and then genuinely tell me that you would fight to save this place. No offense,” an impassioned Councilman Wilbur Ross said to a crowd that included multiple oceanfront business owners. “Imagine no tattoo parlors on every block, no kitschy tourist shops, no cheap boogie boards.”
Others felt that there are parts of the city worth saving but could not list any specifics.
“Historically and culturally, yes, there’s not much that actually happened here,” professor Jared Lemon from Regent University said. “But we have some pretty good Italian and Chinese restaurants out by Hilltop that can compete with Ghent.”
If conditions worsen, some residents questioned if their roots to the region were strong enough to prevent them from leaving. “The elephant in the room,” said Tom Graves, a plumber from Kempsville, “is our lack of a pro sports team. If sea levels rise, nothing is stopping me from moving to a real city with an NFL team.”
The meeting ended on a bright note of regionalism. There was comfort, it seemed, in knowing that if rising sea levels reclaimed a substantial portion of Virginia Beach, other localities in Hampton Roads would be taken under as well. “It looks bad right now,” Councilwoman Rhodes admitted, “but at least we’re not as screwed as Norfolk.”
After a few closing remarks emphasizing the fragility of the present moment and the uncertainty inherent in the future, Mayor Sessoms held up his iPhone and played “White Flag” by Dido until his phone ran out of battery halfway through the second chorus.
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