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The U.S. military takes measures to protect bases from flooding

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The United Nations Climate Change conference wrapped up last week in Egypt with dire warnings about warmer temperatures and higher seas. Here in the U.S., one institution taking the threat seriously is the military, for very practical reasons. Bases near the water's edge could soon be under it. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this report from Hampton Roads, Va.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: This fall on the Virginia coast, there was a king tide, one of the highest tides of the year. Outside an apartment building in Norfolk, members of a group called Wetlands Watch were handing out pamphlets.

VIRGINIA: Why are you putting those on the car?

MARY-CARSON STIFF: I'm putting them on the car to tell people about the flooding that's going to happen.

LAWRENCE: Mary-Carson Stiff and her daughter stuck pamphlets on the windshields of parked cars.

STIFF: OK. Virginia (ph), can you help me? Can you hand me one? OK, hand me this one. Oh, thank you very much.

LAWRENCE: The locals know this lot will most likely flood. It's maybe more recent arrivals who park here.

STIFF: See all the license plates that are out of state.

LAWRENCE: There's an easy fix. People can move to the lot on the other side of the building, which is a foot or two higher. Stiff says she does the same thing at her house when there's a storm surge.

STIFF: So during flood events, our driveway is angled up. You pull your car up next to your house. And the street is wet. And you can't get out. But at least your home is dry, and your cars aren't ruined. So that's adaptation here in the wet part of Norfolk, Va.

LAWRENCE: Also out here with the pamphlets is Skip Stiles, director of Wetlands Watch.

SKIP STILES: This section of the road just floods all the time.

LAWRENCE: He formerly spent decades working these issues in Washington. Now he gets visitors from Washington tours of all the streets in Norfolk that will turn into lakes during high tide. There's one just across the parking lot. Building codes have been playing catch up with the rising flood levels. Stiles points to some of the houses built up on cinder blocks, 3 feet or 6 feet or 11 feet off the ground, depending on the estimate of storm surge the year they were built.

STILES: So these houses were safe when they were elevated in 2003. And then those houses over there that are maybe 9 feet up were safe when they were elevated in 2011. And these houses that are way up in the air were the most recent ones to be elevated. That's 11 foot. These are safe now in 2022.

LAWRENCE: It's an odd sight, uneven rows of houses that look like a game of Tetris. And it's the same thing on many of the half-dozen military bases around Norfolk. Colonel Lisa Mabbutt drove me around Langley Air Force Base on the other side of the river.

LISA MABBUTT: So we've just passed a new hospital facility here. And so new construction, we're required to put that new construction on essentially a platform at the 11-foot level.

LAWRENCE: In her 22 years with the Air Force, Mabbutt has seen climate change and sea level rise become accepted facts in the military despite shifting political tides. On Langley Air Force Base, it happened with a hurricane in 2006.

MABBUTT: Hurricane Isabel caused a 7- to 8-foot flood surge on the base. Operations - normal operations on the base were down for about a week. The airfield was shut down for about four days. The great thing about Isabel is that it gave us a lot of lessons learned.

LAWRENCE: Like the community outside the gates, Langley has made some adaptations - steel flood gates around some building doorways and small sea walls, putting the electricity grid above the flood level. They've also done some things the community can't. At 1 of 6 pump stations on the base, a hatch opens over a 30-foot deep, 162,000-gallon tank. Tunnels big enough to drive a car in connect it to drains near the airfield.

MABBUTT: Pump stations like this to gather the water and give it a holding area while the ambient water level goes down and then get it off the base as fast as we can. Those actually - had we had those in place for Isabel, we would have been able to get the mission back online quicker, and we definitely would have been able to mitigate some of the financial damage.

LAWRENCE: With all four pumps, it can clear 7 million gallons an hour. They give me a little demonstration pumping out the past week's rainwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSHING WATER)

LAWRENCE: Mabbutt's message is this - sea levels are rising faster than ever, but that still gives the military decades to adapt. And it is adapting.

MABBUTT: This base is here to stay, as it has been here for a long time, particularly and perhaps because we have spent so much time trying to live with the water and find ways to absorb the unique environment that we're in.

JOHN CONGER: Norfolk and the Norfolk areas have been at the forefront of climate resilience efforts for the Department of Defense for a long time.

LAWRENCE: John Conger is a former senior Pentagon official. He mentions the sea wall that's nearly complete around Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It's an achievement, he says, but it will have taken 10 years from being proposed to its completion in 2023.

CONGER: That kind of lead time is necessary. And so the projects that are developed are going to have to be able to persevere across administrations and across Congresses and have broad support.

LAWRENCE: Conger worries that the projects the military needs 10 years from now are not already in the pipeline. There's a huge backlog of base maintenance, he says. And the DOD still hasn't completed resilience plans for many installations, which is just the first step on that decade-long journey. Some of the main roads connecting the base to town flooded during the king tide. Skip Stiles with Wetlands Watch in Norfolk says, with the military's backlog of climate resilience projects, the surrounding communities could be left behind.

STILES: After I fix my base, then I'll take care of you, because it all comes out of MilCon - out of the military construction appropriations. So all of this civilian stuff is in the same pot of money as all the on-base defense stuff. So if you think the uniformed services are going to give up their nickels and dimes so you can raise a road outside the wire - right? - I don't think that's going to happen.

LAWRENCE: And these bases are not islands. Many troops live off base in the community, as does a huge workforce of civilians that support the bases. How far out of the gate does the military have to pay for raising the road? Military and civilian officials say they haven't worked that out yet, but they both know the water is coming. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Norfolk, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.