Could Hurricane Dorian reverse progress of Oceanfront renourishment project?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - As Hurricane Dorian moves up the Atlantic and inches closer to Hampton Roads, engineers and city leaders are no stranger to the damage it can bring. They've spent years building barriers in an attempt to keep us safe.

Take the Virginia Beach Oceanfront renourishment project, for example. For the past few months, the City of Virginia Beach and Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began the placement of approximately 1.4 million cubic yards of sand.

Virginia Beach shoreline at dawn. Virginia Beach is an independent city located in the U.S. state of Virginia. Virginia Beach is a resort city, and the Oceanfront is a main tourist attraction. The city is known for its pristine beaches, coastal cuisine and entertainment.

The periodic movement of sand is designed to create a buffer between the ocean and the city, in turn protecting buildings, homes and people from storm surges.

"It's great that we've placed that sand. The purpose of that is to protect the City of Virginia Beach and those structures right behind the beach," Chief of Planning for Norfolk District for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Susan Conner said.

Conner said this week crews have been out surveying multiple beaches - including the Oceanfront, Willoughby Beach in Norfolk and Burckroe Beach in Hampton - to see how much sand there is.

Then, officials will go out as soon as possible after the storm and compare how much damage has been done. From there, they will create a plan of action going forward.

If there is substantial damage, Conner said there is a possibility the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers can come back and fix it at 100% federal cost. "We can come back and put the beach back as it was once was - if these storm impacts do occur."

In the past, Conner said projects like this have prevented millions of dollars in infrastructure damage - and that's not just in Virginia Beach.

Over in Norfolk, she said since the floodwall systems were built in the 1970s, they've prevented about $30 million in damages.

The current downtown floodwall stretches about 1/2 a mile and includes five gate closures and one pump system.

"The system is built to protect against storm surge and wave action for the downtown area," Conner told News 3 reporter Erin Miller.

Those effects are part of the reason Governor Ralph Northam called for a state of emergency Monday. This will allow the state to make emergency-related purchases and mobilize resources to assist in response and recovery efforts.

"Well, the storm surge is always what affects Hampton Roads and we have a low sea level, so any surge... the people in Hampton Roads and Eastern Shore are very vulnerable to sea level rise," he said.

In addition to the floodwalls and beach renourishment, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Norfolk District is looking to construct storm surge barriers. Conner said those barriers are essentially major floodgates designed to minimize coastal flooding.

They have the project planned out, but just need the green light from Congress. Conner said, "The current downtown floodwall is about half a mile long [and] within the new project it would be closer to 8 miles of floodwall around the downtown."

Rainfall is also a factor when it comes to flooding.

Right now, two drainage systems are in place in Virginia Beach and Newport News to move the floodwater out quickly.

Even with all these projects in place, Mother Nature can wreak havoc and destroy an area. Conner said that's why they need to continually adapt and keep up with weather trends.

"We expect those damages to increase in the future given that sea level rise and change in climate," she said.

Click here for more Dorian coverage.

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