U.S. Navy officers tell it like it is about sea level rise

November 28, 2017

Last spring, Helen and I took a cruise on the rivers of The Netherlands, the low-lying nation famous for windmills and water management. On our way to the boat, I asked the driver if the Dutch were worried about sea level rise. (Note: The Netherlands is the official name of the country, which is also informally known as Holland. The people are called Dutch. I was confused too.)

We were, at that moment, speeding along a highway about 12 feet below sea level. Parts of Amsterdam - our embarkation point - lie another nine feet below that. More than a quarter of The Netherlands rests below sea level, and more than half is flood-prone. If places like Dewey Beach seem like Ground Zero for the issue of sea level rise, then the Netherlands might be considered Below Ground Zero.

I expected our driver to express concern, perhaps dread, about the future. Nope, not him. We'll handle it, he said in broken English (far better, of course, than my nonexistent Dutch). And that's the point. They're handling it. They're not arguing about the reality of sea level rise. They can't afford to. We can't either. Though not everybody's gotten the message yet.

One rather important organization that has gotten the message: the U.S. Navy. Our nation's largest naval base lies near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in Norfolk, Va. Naval Station Norfolk, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has played an outsized role in our nation's history. For the Cape Region, it also has much to tell us about our future.

Recently, locals got a peek into that future with the screening of "Tidewater" at the Cinema Art Theater near Lewes. It was introduced by Judy Rolfe of Lewes, a former USA Today photo editor and the film's assistant producer. Unlike some films or stories concerning sea level rise, "Tidewater" doesn't spend much time making dire predictions about the future. It's about now. It's about facts on the ground and how the U.S. Navy, with the help of local governments, is dealing with them.

The power of the film derives not only from the footage of Norfolk's oft-flooded streets, but also from its messengers: low-key, no-nonsense officials of the U.S. Navy and the local Department of Public Works. Here are some quotes from the film, which was directed and produced by Roger Sorkin of the American Resilience Project.

Capt. Joe Bouchard, U.S. Navy (ret.): "Clearly, sea level rise is happening. The U.S. military, they see the problem ... The naysayers, by trying to pretend this is not a problem and is not worthy of funding to adapt to sea level rise, they are jeopardizing U.S. national security, and they are jeopardizing the U.S. economy."

Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, U.S. Navy: "When we look at the problems that the Navy faces down in the Tidewater area, the only way to solve a challenge like sea level rise is through a whole of government approach ... This is not an easy challenge, but it's also a challenge we have to overcome." ... "As an engineer, what I go by is facts, so down here in the Norfolk area, the facts are that the sea level is rising. The facts are that the land is subsiding. So it's a double whammy."

Pete Garner, Department of Public Works, City of Norfolk: "Hampton Boulevard is one of the main connectors to the Navy base.

"At normal high tides, this intersection will start to flood. [If] we get a little abnormal high, the intersection will be completely flooded and impassable ... basically stopping traffic going to the Navy base."

The name of the film, "Tidewater," refers not just to that region of Coastal Virginia. It also refers to the changing nature of the issue. Previously, areas flooded due to major storms. Now, "blue sky" flooding begins with normal high tides. We, too, have blue sky flooding in the Cape Region. We need to approach the issue as matter-of-factly as the U.S. Navy. And maybe some day we'll be as confident about our ability to handle sea level rise as our Dutch taxi driver.

Sea Change is coming

Sea Change Sussex Environmental Action is inviting people to attend a two-hour portion of a live-streamed event called "24 Hours of Reality" from 6 to 8 p.m., Monday, Dec. 4, at the Inn at Canal Square. Hosted by Climate Reality, the event will show how climate change is affecting every continent and what we can do about it. Guests on the show will include scientists, celebrities and business leaders. The Inn at Canal Square, which donated the space, is located at 122 Market St., Lewes.

Don Flood is a former newspaper editor living in Lewes.



  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter