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Feb 12, 2006: FORT MONROE HANDOVER A RISING TIDE OF CONCERN
Hurricane Isabel ran aground on Fort Monroe in September 2003 with high tides and churning waves that crashed over the eastern seawalls only to be trapped by barriers on the western side of the base.
The base morphed into a massive funnel with floodwaters over more than 80 percent of the land, according to a study by the Army Corp of Engineers.
"It was like you stood by your bathtub and started throwing in buckets of water," said Larry Holland, the head of civil works for the Army Corps' Norfolk office. "It just started to build up."
The price tag for updating the base's flood fortifications is about $35 million, and right now it's unclear who is going to pick up that tab.
While Hampton gears up to annex the waterfront property, the Army is working out the details to leave the base -- a move expected to be finished in 2011 at a cost of more than $240 million, not including the flood protections.
Much has been made about how the historic base is littered with centuries-old munitions and unexploded ordnance that will have to be cleaned up before developers can do any work. How to curb the flooding there represents another, much-less-discussed problem to solve.
"Since the Army is going to be operating there for the next five years, right now it's their problem," said Brian DeProfio, an assistant city manager who is spearheading Hampton's effort to take over Fort Monroe. "But at the end of the day, it's probably everybody's problem"
Federal funding to protect the flood-prone base was in the Army budget last year, but when Monroe was tagged for closure, the money was frozen in place.
"It's a pause basically, is the best way to describe it," explained Sandy Goss, an Army spokesman at Fort Monroe. "Hold it, let's double-check this."
Goss' office oversees Army bases from North Carolina to the Canadian border, but he said the hierarchy at Monroe probably would have little to do with the review of the flood protections.
U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Hampton City Council members want the Army to pay for higher seawalls and an extensive series of berms and breakwaters needed to protect against storm-churned waves and tides. A decision, however, isn't expected for a few months.
Warner believes Monroe qualifies for federal dollars, said his spokesman John Ullyot, but "there's a big 'however' here, because there is a law that says no federal funds can be spent to improve those bases."
Federal funding will be used to clear the base of buried munitions, but other improvements to the base must qualify as a safety or environmental hazard.
If the Army believes the base is eligible for the waiver, Ullyot said, then the secretary of defense must ask for permission to use the money from both the Senate and the House armed services committees.
Monroe has long suffered the brunt of storms because it sits at the southeastern tip of the Peninsula. Between 1928 and 2003, 29 storms caused at least 4 feet of flooding there -- 11 storms from the tropics and 18 northeasters.
Isabel triggered the second highest water levels on the base, but it was the funnel effect that made the flood so damaging.
Waves topped the eastern barriers along Dog Beach only to splash against earthen walls built along Mill Creek to prevent flooding from the marsh to the west.
That transformed the base into an oversized trench and water poured south, eventually dumping near the marina.
That sequence is particularly frightening to historians such as John V. Quarstein, who runs the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, because floodwaters pushed past the 83 houses on the base that are listed on the national historic register.
Floodwaters usually damage woodwork and erode the mortar between bricks, Quarstein said, and once waters recede, preservationists have to deal with mold and mildew.
"Every time you get water in a historic building, it threatens its fabric," he said. "These are some of the most historic buildings in Hampton Roads ... and this puts everything at tremendous risk."
Many of the base's historic buildings have elevated floors to keep water at bay, Quarstein noted, but even a wall of sandbags couldn't keep Hurricane Isabel's waters from getting inside the Casemate Museum.
To protect the historic buildings and the remainder of the fort, the Army Corps study recommends a handful of improvements including:
* Raising the Fenwick seawall from 71/2 feet to 91/2 feet.
* Installing a series of breakwaters along the eastern coast to lessen the impact of high surf.
* Installing an 8-foot berm just north of the old fort to keep water out of the fort's historic area.
* Lowering the Mill Creek wall from 61/2 feet to 51/2 feet so it doesn't trap too much water.
* Installing a series of one-way drains around the marina and at other low points on the base to help run water off into the bay.
It could take two years to do this work, according to the study. Hampton Vice Mayor Joe Spencer, an insurance agent, noted that the warning shot about hurricane preparation has already been fired.
"You don't know that a Katrina isn't going to come up the coast, God forbid, or another Isabel," Spencer said. "It's not like they're turning it over tomorrow. They should have a heightened sense of it especially in the wake of what happened in New Orleans." *
The cost to update the flood fortifications at Fort Monroe
The cost for the Army to move from the base by 2011, not including the fortifications