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Environmentalists call for more green infrastructure ahead of Hurricane Ian

Hurricane Ian as seen from a NOAA satellite.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES-16 satellite tracks Hurricane Ian as it moves Friday over the Southeast. (Photo: NOAA/The Associated Press)

While rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ian could mean flooded streets in South Richmond, environmental groups say that green infrastructure might help mitigate future flooding.  

Forecasters from the National Weather Service in Wakefield expect the Richmond area will get several inches of rain from the storm as it makes its way up the east coast.   

Even though the storm is forecast to weaken before reaching Richmond, Sheri Shannon of Southside ReLeaf said flooding is likely to happen there.  

“The reality is, in Southside there are neighborhoods where if it rains, it's going to flood. [It] doesn’t have to be a significant storm event,” Shannon said. “I know that with this upcoming storm that's going to come through … trying to get through Midlothian, Hull Street, many of these major corridors in South Richmond is going to be almost impossible.” 

Southside ReLeaf plants trees and builds community gardens in the region of the city that has higher rates of poverty and less built-out infrastructure.  

Shannon said the city needs to make smart decisions about roads and stormwater systems. 

“Specifically, we need to look at how we can use green infrastructure — whether that is through trees, green streets, green alleyways [or] more permeable surfaces — to reduce a lot of the flooding that we see happen in Southside neighborhoods,” Shannon said. 

Trees and other green infrastructure help keep water out of the storm system by diverting it into the ground, rather than allowing it to flow into city sewers. 

“These practices allow that stormwater to filter into the ground in some cases,” said Justin Doyle, of the James River Association. “Also, when it's filtering into the ground, stormwater loses some of the pollutants that it's carrying: pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus, and sediment.” 

These pollutants can fuel algae blooms, which can reduce oxygen levels in the James River and adversely affect plants and animals there, Doyle said. 

An ongoing infrastructure challenge for the city of Richmond is related to water drainage: Much of the city’s combined sewer system handles stormwater, meaning it will discharge sewage into the James River during heavy rains. 

The city’s Department of Public Utilities is getting ready for the storm by marking “potential high-water locations” with signs and preparing sandbags for those areas, according to a summary of preparations the department sent to VPM News.  

In “stormwater hotspots,” DPU is clearing clogged storm drains, the plan said. The city is also encouraging Richmonders to keep drains free of debris.  

“What we would like to see from the city of Richmond is for there to be a more concerted effort to invest in more sustainable practices when investing those dollars in capital improvements,” Shannon said.  

The James River Association is a content partner of VPM News, but had no editorial input for this story.

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.