Tides Turn U.S. Yards to Wetlands as Warming Takes Toll

Raised Home in Norfolk
Climate change is beginning to take a toll on real estate in Norfolk, about 80 miles southeast of Richmond, as insurance costs soar and residents resort to putting their homes on stilts or opening up space underneath for the water to flow through. Photographer: Heather Perlberg/Bloomberg

Amanda Armstrong schedules her life around the tides. For the past year and a half, she’s had to navigate rising waters that saturate the lawn of her red brick house in Norfolk, Virginia, and sometimes fill a puddle out front with crabs and fish.

“We call it our little aquarium,” Armstrong, 40, said from outside the home along the Lafayette River that she rents with her family, where wetlands plants have sprouted up from the frequent doses of salt water.

Climate change is beginning to take a toll on real estate in the coastal city, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southeast of Richmond, as insurance costs soar and residents resort to putting their homes on stilts or opening up space underneath for the water to flow through. While most of the U.S. is in a housing rebound, prices in Norfolk fell 2.2 percent in October, according to the Virginia Beach-based Real Estate Information Network.

The city, which averages about a flood a month, is a harbinger of life in U.S. coastal communities. By 2045, within the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage, sea levels will rise about a foot along the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern shoreline, increasing tidal flooding in places including Atlantic City, New Jersey; Ocean City, Maryland; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, according to an October report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Even with gradual sea-level rise, some elevations can undergo very fast change in vulnerability to flooding,” said Ben Strauss, vice president for sea level and climate impact at research organization Climate Central. “What’s happening in coastal Virginia is kind of a preview of what could happen much more widely.”

Rising Costs

Higher sea levels combined with storm surge, in which high winds and low pressure carry sea water inland, will probably increase the average annual cost of coastal storms in the region by as much as $3.5 billion within the next 15 years, according to a June report from the Risky Business Project, an effort to highlight the economic costs of runaway climate change led by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

With potential increases in the number of and intensity of hurricanes, the total annual price tag for coastal storms will increase to about $35 billion, the report showed.

Sandy Lingers

In the Northeast, the effects are still being felt from Hurricane Sandy two years ago.

Sandy brought hurricane-force winds and pushed floodwaters over barrier islands and into seaside communities, destroying or damaging 305,000 homes in New York and 346,000 in New Jersey. It led to mortgage delinquencies in Long Island, New York, waterfront communities such as Mastic Beach and Shirley, where many owners abandoned properties because they couldn’t afford the repairs.

“Things are not that much better,” said Ed Romaine, supervisor of neighboring town, Brookhaven, and its former commissioner of housing and community development. “Some people are getting some FEMA aid; some people have left their homes vacant.”

Home prices in Mastic Beach, a 30-minute drive west of the Southampton mansions on Long Island’s southern coast, have dropped more than 9 percent to $162,000 in October from the same month in 2011, before Sandy hit, according to Zillow Inc.

Raising Homes

Along the Virginia coast, flooding has become such a part of everyday life that residents are responding by raising their properties about 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground, towering over neighbors in treehouses atop gray cinder block beds. It costs from $80 to $100 a square foot, and takes about two to four months to lift a home and complete the construction underneath, according to Jim Matyiko, who co-runs the Southeast division of Expert House Movers.

The structural moving company elevates one or two homes each week in the Virginia coastal area, Matyiko said. About 80 percent are lifted with aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Poquoson, a Virginia bedroom community of about 4,055 houses, this year got approval for its second hazard-mitigation grant from FEMA to help lift about 20 homes in the area, according to Kenneth Somerset, the city’s floodplain manager.

“We’ve had great success with citizens elevating their homes,” Somerset said, adding that many residents have done so with private funding. “The ones down low are in the minority now.”

Better Sales

Raised homes are more valuable and easier to sell, because flood insurance premiums are lower and buyers don’t have to factor in future flood mitigation costs, according to Somerset.

Poquoson prices in October were up almost 9 percent from a year earlier, Real Estate Information Network data showed.

While it keeps the interiors dry, some houses cost more to raise than they are worth, said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a Virginia nonprofit environmental group.

In Norfolk, where there is little land to develop, the city wants homes raised anyway to protect its property tax base, he said, standing in the Larchmont neighborhood, where a masonry crew last month was building a new foundation underneath a small brick house with white shutters. Two days later, with the help of winds from a Nor’easter, the street flooded, preventing construction workers from getting to the home.

“It shows the folly of raising a house and forgetting about the street or future conditions,” Stiles said. “This is what we’ll be getting regularly by about 2070.”

Trouble Selling

The majority of houses nearby, lining Hampton Boulevard, are still sitting at street level.

Many owners can’t afford to lift their houses without federal aid, and the damage from flooding continues to increase. There are 900 Norfolk properties on the “repetitive loss” list, up from 200 in 2002, according to a November Wetlands Watch study. Some people try to rent their homes or walk away from them if they can’t sell, Stiles said, pointing to one of several “for sale” signs in the neighborhood.

“They come up like mushrooms after the storms,” he said.

Escalating flood-insurance costs in Norfolk and surrounding areas have been making it harder for residents to buy and sell homes, according to Scott Hunter, owner of Virginia Beach-based Comparity, which helps people shop for insurance plans.

“It definitely has impacted real estate,” Hunter said. “It’s a combination of longer selling times for homes in required zones with expensive policies and buyers that are in a situation where the deal can’t go through because of the added flood expense.”

Adding Vents

Michael Vernon, director of business development for Flood Mitigation Hampton Roads, has built a business around the encroaching waters, helping homeowners prevent flooding and lower insurance costs, which makes their properties are more attractive to buyers. One of his clients was struggling to sell a house in Virginia Beach that had been listed on the market for about 60 days. The flood-insurance premium cost $1,800 a year, he said.

The owner paid about $2,300 in August for Vernon’s team to put vents in the house to allow for water to flow in and out of the crawl space beneath it. The work, which took half of a day, brought the annual insurance premium down to $400, according to Vernon, and the house sold five days later.

“Over the long haul, especially in severe flood zones, properties are going to have to be mitigated,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll be washed away or demolished. It’s just a matter of time until the finances don’t make sense.”

The number of floods in Norfolk has tripled every year since the 1970s, according to the October report by Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based advocacy group made up of economists, scientists and engineers.

Building Booms

Rising sea levels and more prevalent storms aren’t stopping major development on condominium or apartment buildings in U.S. cities such as Manhattan, Miami, or San Francisco’s Bay Area, where prices continue to rise and a wave of new projects are planned or being built.

More than 300 condominium towers are proposed or under construction in South Florida, according to CraneSpotters.com, which tracks development in the area. At least 20 of the buildings will be in Miami Beach, where flooding is becoming more common as sea levels rise, leading the city to spend $500 million on projects that address stormwater, including the installation of 58 pump stations in the next five years.

In September, contractors were spending $1 million a week on one area, putting up a new sea wall and adding large underground pipes, according to a statement from the city.

Builders are incorporating new design into projects so they contribute to flood-mitigation efforts, said Bob Bistry, an architect with Perkins and Will, the firm that designed plans for 500 Alton Road in Miami Beach.

Elevated Park

The proposed project, backed by luxury-condo developer Crescent Heights, would have an elevated park with pumps for rainwater to drain into a reservoir. The pool would be able to hold a significant amount of water, which would help prevent flooding and also act as green space, Bistry said.

In Manhattan, while developers continue to build in areas that experienced heavy flooding caused by Sandy, they are mindful of the storm’s high-water mark, and make room for mechanical and electrical equipment on higher floors, at least 12 to 15 feet above sea level, said John Gilbert, chief operating officer of Rudin Management Co., whose 80 Pine St. and 110 Wall St. properties sustained damage from Sandy.

“It’s really all about design and moving that stuff out of harm’s way,” Gilbert said. “You’ve always got to plan for worst and hope for best.”

Armstrong and her boyfriend, Bart Kuebler, have adopted a similar mantra while living in Norfolk. They keep most of their valuable belongings on the second floor and rarely leave or return home before checking predictive tide tables. The two often park several blocks away to avoid getting stuck in the driveway when water from the river spills over the bulkhead and fills their street.

“The flooding affects our daily life, said Armstrong, who plans to move with her family next year because her landlord wants to list the property for sale. It’s definitely here and it’s happening more regularly.”

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