“Mapping Floodlines” is an interactive art installation that tackles a pertinent issue in Norfolk, Virginia: flood resilience. Combining science, the arts, and the humanities to discuss climate and racial justice, viewers are invited to interact with a series of hand-drawn maps of Norfolk.

One map hand-cut on paper leaves an impression of what Norfolk is projected to look like by 2080 if we take no measures to cut our carbon gas emissions and if our city creates no infrastructure like flood walls to combat rising sea levels. Another map drawn and printed on transparency film shows the location of 1930s-40s redlined districts in Norfolk. A more recent map shows Norfolk’s current five-phase flood resilience proposal plan, which includes the construction of flood walls, water pump stations, and non-structural changes such as elevated houses in specific areas.

On their own, each of these maps tells a narrative. This project is interested in what happens when these maps are physically overlaid. Viewers can overlay the maps themselves on top of a lightbox and reflect on the following guiding questions: What larger narrative is revealed when new layers, or new dimensions, are added? Who is telling the story? Who do they leave out, and why might this be? What areas of Norfolk are most vulnerable to flooding and rising sea levels, and who lives there?

The installation challenges viewers to consider the ways in which narratives of flood resiliency are told by those in decision-making power, versus the ways these narratives are told by those who would be directly impacted by the results of those decisions.

As a coastal city, Norfolk is already vulnerable to flooding. However, global warming contributes to sea level rise and increases the strength of storms and hurricanes, which means that flooding has more damaging effects. Even during the non-stormy periods, Norfolk land is sinking, meaning that sea level rise paired with general rainfall can still cause flooding issues. While some flood resiliency plans are still being negotiated, the city appears to be rather set on a five-phase plan that includes the construction of seawalls, levees, and surge barriers in downtown areas.

Nonstructural plans have also been proposed, particularly for lower-income areas like the south-side of Norfolk, which have a large community of Black residents. These nonstructural plans include elevating people’s, filling basements, and establishing natural shorelines with grasses. While these areas are also the most vulnerable to the effects of flooding, they currently receive the least support and are deprioritized in Norfolk’s current timeline for the five-phase plan. Residents of the southside “support barriers for other neighborhoods” but want to see the same care extended to them in city policy.

"What gets protected in communities—and how that is done—is determined through a cost-benefit analysis, by the Corps, which focuses on property values.”

(from “As Norfolk weighs storm protection plan, Black residents want more say,” by Jim Morrison, Washington Post)

The U.S. Army Corp’s plan currently prioritizes the protection of areas like Downtown Norfolk and the Navy bases because these areas have higher property values, which is what inspired me to overlap this plan with Norfolk’s redlined districts from the 1930s and 1940s. While redlining is not “practiced” anymore, its effects continue to have an impact in the present, such as in decision-making like Norfolk’s flood resiliency plans. The construction of the last phase of the current five-phase plan also is not projected to be complete until 2032, which raises several concerns:

if we do not decrease our carbon emissions, will this plan as it exists still be sufficient in 2032? What are folks who live in phase 5 areas supposed to do until then? How will they be supported? We can never be sure either that water will stay within the bounds of our human calculations. Another concern is how flood walls around only certain communities will force water downward into the neighboring city of Portsmouth, which is also a city with a majority-Black population.