Since she was appointed last October by Gov. Ralph Northam to spearhead efforts for coastal adaptation to climate change, retired Navy Adm. Ann Phillips is finding communities still don’t understand their role in funding resilience to sea-level rise and flooding.
Most believe a storm disaster will bring federal aid.
“As I talked to people about what options are, in passing, to deal with the future, I have a sense that many homeowners feel that the cities are going to bail them out. And that the cities feel that the states should bail them out, and that the state thinks the federal government should bail them out,” she told those gathered for a forum last month at the College of William & Mary.
“In actuality, none of that is going to happen. And to get to the point where we’re going to get big federal dollars in here without planning ahead, relying on a storm is pure folly.”
After nearly 31 years in the Navy, where she implemented climate change adaptation plans, Phillips is traveling Virginia, putting together a coastal master plan to inform the General Assembly about the need to fund climate change adaptation and protection for state-owned facilities.
She has met with state and city officials, as well as planning district commissions to include what they are already doing in this first step of creating a state master plan.
Virginia is a climate change hot spot, with a combination of rising sea level, subsiding lands and warming waters. In the next decade, the state is expected to have places where every high tide will reach the nuisance flood level.
“That means roads, schools, access, critical infrastructure are all vulnerable and that vulnerability is continuing to grow, even without the big storm, the big event,” she said. “We can’t wait for the storm to take action.
Phillips said while localities and municipalities will not be required to follow standards in the master plan, they can use it voluntarily. The good news, she said, is that many entities are looking at similar kinds of sea-level rise scenarios for future planning purposes.
“So we aren’t seeing wide disparities,” she said. “To me, that validates not only what we’ve come up with, but the whole process.”
Phillips is a strong believer in face-to-face interaction and subscribes to the philosophy of “first do no harm.”
“Let’s see what people are doing. You have to understand where they are and for me to do that I have to go meet them. I have to go talk to them and let them tell me, ‘I’m really interested in this. I’m not at all interested in that,’ ” she said.
“And every time I do that, I learn something. Whatever perspective you might imagine they have, often that’s not correct. Unless you’re on the ground, you don’t get it.”
During the last few years, William & Mary Law School and the Virginia Coastal Policy Center have been holding a series of climate change forums, bringing in experts to discuss possible solutions to Virginia’s flooding problems due to rising seas and sinking lands along its coasts.
During her keynote speech at the May 3 forum, Phillips laid out the economic importance of the federal government and the Port of Virginia, where the state has the country’s fourth largest container ship port by volume. Virginia ranks first in defense spending and first in defense personnel spending.
“We have tremendous presence at the federal level, particularly along coastal Virginia from the Department of Defense in both Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and in Dahlgren, where we have a huge naval sea system command-combat systems technical training center, and we have NASA Wallops Island test facility, ” she said.
“All of these assets are extremely valuable to the nation. They are unique, they are indispensable and in many cases irreplaceable. So where they are is where they must be to execute their mission.”
So far, the General Assembly has not stepped up to the challenge. One example, legislators have yet to appropriate money to a fund they established in 2016 to create a low-interest loan program to help residents and businesses subject to recurrent flooding. Phillips herself has no funding for staff.
As she travels the state, she notes that climate change is not just affecting coastal Virginia.
“I keep bumping into riverine, I keep bumping into rainfall ... the need for a flooding monitoring network statewide. The need for updating projected floodplain mapping statewide,” she said.
Virginia’s changing climate also means the potential for greater health risks from disease. She said Virginia Department of Health has just started a climate change working group to look at the threat of pandemics statewide and to look at future impacts.
Also breathing down the neck of Phillips and the General Assembly, maintaining Virginia’s Triple A credit rating while generating big bills to protect and make communities more resilient to climate change.
“There’s just so many different kinds of things to pull together,” she said in an interview. “It’s fascinating but it’s also quite daunting.”