Forum 9 (July 24, 2015): Getting the Word Out on Flooding

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Forum 9 (July 24, 2015): Getting the Word Out on Flooding

At the Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum on July 27, experts gathered to discuss ways to communicate frequent flooding events and flooding risk to citizens of Hampton Roads.

July 27, 2015 Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum meets to discuss challenges in communicating frequent flooding. ©Larry Atkinson/ODU

July 27, 2015 Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum meets to discuss challenges in communicating frequent flooding. ©Larry Atkinson/ODU

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By Jugal Patel, Embedded Student Correspondent

Carol Considine moved to Hampton Roads, like any other, with little to no understanding of its intricacies. When she first arrived about 15 years ago, she mistook high water markers on street underpasses as clearance heights for trucks; she assumed the brackish water was fresh water; she knew no alternate routes to take when streets would flood.

“People who come here from out of the area don’t understand it,” she said. “There really needs to be some education resources for them so that they can understand what the risks are, and how to prepare for and avoid those risks.”

Considine is now an engineering professor at Old Dominion University (ODU), specializing in sustainable building practices. She shared her perspective at the Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum on July 27, 2015—which focused on how to communicate frequent flooding events.

Frequent flooding leads to public inconveniences—road closures for instance—which are expected to increase as sea level rises.

Considine presented the findings of a multidisciplinary study she conducted with ODU faculty members Burton St. John and Wie Yusuf, a graduate student Stephanie Joannou, and Michelle Covi, who is also a Virginia Sea Grant extension staff member.

To understand how drivers react during flood events, the research team surveyed members of ODU and the surrounding community.

According to St. John, an associate professor of communication, “there was a positive surprise and a not-so-good surprise.” The people surveyed were knowledgeable about options to take when their commutes flood. On the other hand, drivers often made haphazard decisions, the most frequent being the choice to drive through water.

The study found that drivers based some of their decisions on whether they felt their vehicle could handle flood conditions or whether drivers ahead were able to successfully pass through a flooded street.

Other speakers at the Forum shared similar challenges in communicating frequent flooding, including meteorologists for local media and the National Weather Service (NWS), emergency managers, city planners, and wetlands specialists.

Jeff Orrock, Meteorologist-in-Charge at the NWS Wakefield office, directs the office’s process of when to issue flood advisories or flood warnings. Using models, maps, visualizations, and photos, he and his staff communicate information on frequent, nuisance flooding for the public.

“The nuisance flooding is getting worse,” Orrock said. “How do we clearly communicate flood risk?”

He and others saw potential solutions in the ever-expanding digital toolbox. The idea is to provide citizens with real-time information on flooded areas, down to the street level.

“The data is out there,” he said. “You could develop something. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”

Jeremy Wheeler, a WAVY-TV meteorologist, acknowledged the value of social media discussion during flood events as a way to gather information, rather than sending it out. Wavy’s social media reach extends to 200,000 followers, while Wheeler has his own following of 5,000 individuals–many of which are citizens of the Hampton Roads area.

“That’s a lot of input that we can get from people, and we do get that input,” he said. “Just about every event, people will give us their two cents. And immediately, we’ll get that information and react depending on the quality of that report.”

The Forum continued with a panel of city planners from Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, further delving into the range of communication based services they could provide.

While Forum participants found no perfect communication method, the goal moving forward is to apply new tools and opportunities, provide information that people need when they need it, simplify complex information on flooding, and interact with communities in person.

The Adaptation Forum was the ninth in a series of events since 2012, hosted jointly by Virginia Sea Grant, Old Dominion University, and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission

While July’s event was the last under current funding from the Virginia Sea Grant, Director Troy Hartley supports a continued dialogue within the region. With sea level issues expanding along with the number of people involved, adaptation topics can explore a variety of sectors and boundaries.

In the past, the Forums have focused on the science of sea level rise, government approaches to adaptation, mapping tools, floodplain management, and structural megaprojects among other solutions.

“The core of what the forum is doing is really critical,” says Hartley, “and that should continue.”