Michelle Covi’s office sits on the third floor of a tall building in Norfolk, Virginia. The light grey walls wear posters depicting ocean waves in pastel blues, pinks, and purples. Shells and a dried starfish are scattered on Covi’s desk. Overall, the room emits a serenity that reflects its occupant’s calm disposition.
But on one wall, a sinister-looking map disrupts the tranquility. “Sea Level Rise Vulnerability of the United States’ East Coast by 2100” shows ominous reds, oranges, and yellows creeping up the Eastern seaboard. This map is what drives Covi’s work.
Since February 2014, Covi has been a faculty member in Old Dominion University’s (ODU) Ocean, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences Department. Her official title is climate adaptation & resilience assistant professor of practice, a position jointly funded by ODU and Virginia Sea Grant. She defines resilience as “the ability to adapt to changing conditions and rapidly recover from disruptions; the capability to survive and thrive in face of shocks and stressors.” The primary stressor she contends with is recurrent flooding.
Over the last century, global sea levels have risen five to eight inches. But in Hampton Roads, the southeastern portion of Virginia that includes Norfolk, sea levels have risen more than 14 inches since 1930. Here, sea level is rising faster than average because global sea levels are rising, and the land is sinking due to groundwater extraction and geologic forces. By 2100, sea levels in Hampton Roads are projected to rise between 2.3 and 5.2 feet, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee.
As the seas rise, flooding has become more prevalent in Hampton Roads. A heavy rain can turn roadways into quasi-waterways. A bad storm can close schools because buses can’t get kids to class via their usual routes. Even daily high tides can flood buildings in close proximity to the water’s edge.
As an agent of resilience, Covi seeks to help coastal communities in Hampton Roads adapt to the water inundating their homes, workplaces, and roads. And she does this by connecting communities with university research.
Traditionally, universities research sea level rise in academic isolation and think about potential solutions to recurrent flooding without engaging the affected communities. But Covi believes this approach leaves important voices out of the resilience conversation.
“I think part of what we need to do in order to really address resilience issues is to engage people at all levels in these issues. How do we get into the neighborhoods? How do we reach some of the folks that are not being listened to? The first step is to tell them the findings, and the next step is to actually engage them in the process of forming those questions,” Covi says.
“I think part of what we need to do in order to really address resilience issues is to engage people at all levels in these issues."
Flooding during Hurricane Isabel in Hampton Roads in 2003. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)
“In the years that she has been here, Michelle has become one of the core people in this space. She’s figured out how to best take what universities are doing, and put it into hands of people that actually use it,” says Ben McFarlane, senior regional planner at Hampton Roads Planning District Commission. McFarlane works with Covi to organize the quarterly Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum—one of the ways she passes university research to community members and other people who need it.
Every Hampton Roads Adaptation Forum is a melting pot. Attendees come from across academic, political, governmental backgrounds to learn about and discuss sea level rise and flooding in Hampton Roads; they include emergency managers, city leaders and planners, scientists, local government staff, private sector engineers, state and federal staff, nongovernmental organization workers, and community members.
Each forum has a unique theme, from “The Latest in Sea Level Rise Science” to “Adaptive Structures and Innovative Solutions,” but the day-long events are structured the same: a handful of speakers give presentations about their work, with time in between for networking. The forums are as much a place to present new research and ideas as a venue for people from diverse backgrounds to discuss flooding resilience in Hampton Roads.
“The brand is so highly respected that when she puts an announcement out for an upcoming forum, usually we have like 50 people sign up without even knowing what the agenda is, because they just know it will be good,” says Larry Atkinson, a professor of physical oceanography at ODU who studies the causes of sea level rise, and works down the hall from Covi. They collaborate on a number of projects, including the forums.
Covi is a “breath of fresh air,” according to Atkinson. “She has a very pleasant personality. She allows everybody to talk and present their case. She has a background in ecological sciences and experience working with stakeholders in North Carolina and running a not-for-profit organization in Illinois, so she has a lot of experience working with diverse research groups and stakeholder groups and appreciates where everyone is coming from.”
Despite her fascination with nature, originally inspired by a high school field trip to a marsh, working with people is actually Covi’s favorite part of her job.
“When you like nature, you want to study nature,” Covi says. “But eventually you realize that you’re not managing nature, you’re managing people. So you really need to crack the people code in order to make a difference, make better healthier communities.”
In Hampton Roads, underserved communities are especially vulnerable to flooding. To strengthen the resiliency of these more vulnerable communities, Covi created another melting-pot-esque event: a service learning workshop called “Building University-Community Partnerships for Resilience,” in which sixty participants gathered to learn about service learning—the infusion of community service into academic curriculum. About half the participants represented watershed organizations, social services, city neighborhood departments, cultural and educational institutions, and advocacy organizations in Virginia. The other half were faculty or staff from Virginian universities.
“We had people from different groups that had probably never sat together before,” Covi says. She wanted to create a space where they could brainstorm opportunities to partner on service learning projects that would better equip communities to recover from flooding. Through guided conversation, participants fleshed out basic project ideas, and began to tackle potential difficulties.
“Service learning is not well integrated into university curriculums,” Covi explains. “And it’s challenging for faculty to get credit for work they do with students in communities.” After the workshop, Covi matched and funded five service-learning projects, including an oyster reef restoration project in Saxis, Virginia and a survey of Portsmouth community members on their perception of sea level rise risk.
Through all her projects, Covi hopes to keep making people think about resilience in the face of worsening flooding. And she sees no end to her work: “Resilience is more of a process or mind set than a goal.”
By Chris Patrick, science writer