New Film: America’s Largest Naval Base Threatened by Climate Change

BY ON March 22, 2017

Cars trying to drive through flooded area

The U.S. Navy is the largest, most powerful armada on earth. But it’s no match for climate change, as a provocative new film called “Tidewater” shows.

Moreover, the U.S. Navy agrees,

“The U.S. Navy recognizes sea level rise and increasing storm surge as risks that can affect our infrastructure and readiness. We are committed to making science-based decisions that preserve our ability to conduct our national security mission now and in the future.” -Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy, and Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command

What those decisions are depends, of course, on  how seriously citizens and elected officials along with the military take the threats climate change poses, and how well everyone works together to resolve them.

“Tidewater,” which premiered at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., is named for the Tidewater region of southeast Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. The region sits at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and encompasses 17 cities and municipalities, including Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Newport News. The area gets its name from the effects that changing tides have on local rivers, sounds, and the ocean. It’s flat, low land composed of tidal marshes, large expanses of swamp and the urban development that has come as cities and towns build their communities on whatever land they can reclaim from the sea.

The Navy located there to take advantage of the many ports around which to dock its ships, amass its sailors, and launch its missions. Seal Team 6, the famous commandos who took out Osama bin Laden, trained there. Tens of thousands of sailors have deployed from there to ports all over the world; 1.6 million Americans call the area home.

As a coastal community, Tidewater is experiencing the same rapid sea-level rise that’s occurring along every shoreline due to climate change, but in spades. The area is considered to be the second most vulnerable community in the U.S. to sea level rise after New Orleans. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a hurricane like Katrina to demonstrate the region’s fragility. Sometimes streets flood when the skies are clear blue with no rain or storm in sight. People’s basements are filling with water; neighborhoods are submerging. In one effective scene from the film, the pastor of a local church described how impossible it was for his congregants to get to Mass because the inundated streets were impassible – and it wasn’t even raining. In another, a young woman is shown providing her elderly mother with a life vest. She doesn’t want her mother to drown when the floods inevitably come.

What else is at stake? In addition to roads, bridges and buildings being undermined, the electric grid has to be turned off when it gets flooded. In more than one instance, power to naval docks has gone out because the electricity system got wet. When severe weather strikes the region, the Navy moves its ships out to sea so they won’t end up getting blown onto the land. Getting them back into port again can be almost impossible if the ports are flooded and the power is out. Retired Rear Admiral Ann Phillips is interviewed on camera expressing her concern about the national security risks the U.S. faces when these dire situations occur.

In fact, Phillips once commanded a destroyer squadron and an expeditionary strike group. This pilot project was convened through a partnership with the Obama administration, Old Dominion University, Williams and Mary College and VIMS. Phillips was a collaborating member. She’s not ignoring her own backyard, either. The film shows her planting trees near her waterside home to help restore the wetlands that can help buffer her neighborhood against the rising tides.

“Tidewater” was produced and directed by Roger Sorkin under the auspices of the American Resilience Project. The project was founded with two goals in mind. One is to engage citizens and policymakers “in the face of environmental threats like sea level rise, extreme weather, …and electrical grid vulnerability.” The second is to harness the power of film to “inspire action and cooperation” that will lead to solutions.

Sorkin welcomed a capacity crowd to the premiere of his film, and said, This film depoliticizes an issue that should not be political in the first place. (Tweet this)

In other words, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter if you’re drowning.

Acknowledging how climate change has become a political  operative, Sorkin also encouraged the audience to look to each other for solutions rather than rely strictly on the government:

“We can’t wait for our elected officials to get on board. We have to lead the way.”

Photo credit: Judy G. Rolfe

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TOPICS: Climate Change, Heat and Extreme Weather