The USS North Carolina Is Battling A New Enemy: Climate Change

Mar 31, 2019

"Vulnerable" seems like the last word to describe a 70 million-pound armored ship that can fire shells weighing as much as a car. But now the USS North Carolina, one of the state's most iconic tourist attractions, has a new enemy … and a new battle plan.

Generations of school kids have clambered up and down the USS North Carolina's steep steps and explored its tight corridors and nearly house-sized gun turrets.

On a recent day, the visitors included two classes of 5th graders from J.S. Waters Elementary School in Chatham County. One of the teachers with them, Kristen Breedlove, had come often when she was a kid herself.

"We would come and visit here every single time we went on summer vacation," Breedlove said. "It was a family tradition until we stopped coming to the beach because my grandparents got too old."

Like millions before them, the 5th graders got a history lesson while marveling at the size everything has to be on a ship nearly two and a half football fields long. Hardly anything aboard - from cannon barrels bigger than telephone poles to bread mixers that easily swallow 100 pounds of flour - has changed since the ship's time fighting in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

But the climate is changing, and the effects are especially strong here. Retired Navy Capt. Terry Bragg runs the battleship site. He has taken to calling it the epicenter of climate change in the state.

"When I got to the Battleship North Carolina in 2009, I saw symptoms of climate change, and that drove me to do a comparison and a mapping of all the flooding-related events in 2015 and 2016," Bragg said.

He discovered a clear trend. In the 1940s, the site experienced six flooding events. But between 2010 and 2015 there were 92. And Bragg said the USS North Carolina site now sees 70 a year.

"So it's a dramatic change, and it's changing what we do and how we do things," he said.

Six decades ago, when the ship was brought to North Carolina, it was slipped into a trough carved in marshy ground not far from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, just across from Wilmington.

Hurricanes have often made landfall near the site, pushing a storm surge ahead of them. And the site is downstream from parts of the state where storms can dump lots of rain. So it can get high water from two directions, sometimes during the same storm.

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Terry Bragg, the executive director of the Battleship North Carolina, stands in front of the aft turret of the main battery. Bragg has documented a sharp increase in the number of floods at the popular tourist site.
Credit Jay Price / WUNC

"So we know we're at the epicenter of the climate change in Eastern North Carolina," Bragg said. "We've spent millions of dollars in mitigation to the impacts of Matthew and Florence and tropical storm Michael."

The building that houses ticketing and the gift shop was still being repaired as the Chatham 5th graders came through it. Hurricane Florence forced the site to close for nearly three weeks because it was completely flooded.

The battleship can't afford to shut down often for these ever-more frequent floods because, while it's state owned, it is expected to operate like a business, generating enough money to pay for its operations.

The threats that sea level rise pose to the site have prompted Bragg and his team to start a new initiative called "Living With Water," because, as he puts it, that's what the battleship is going to have to do.

He started the plan last summer, even before Florence hit, and now the battleship is seeking a grant from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund to help pay for it.

Teachers and parents shoot photos of a group of 5th graders from J.S. Waters Elementary School in Chatham County visiting the USS North Carolina. The 70 million-pound armored ship is nearly two and a half football fields long.
Credit Jay Price / WUNC

The initiative will add to the ship's educational mission, Bragg said. The tens of thousands of students who visit each year can hear about how the project works and learn from data that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will collect while studying effects of some of the changes.

It has become almost routine for part of the parking lot to flood, and the staff has to monitor the tides for weeks ahead to try to be ready. The new initiative, though, could help make that flooding benign.

"We will give up much of our parking lot and make it a natural conduit of water," Bragg sad. "We're going to create a living shoreline rather than those big concrete blocks so the natural biologics that we can introduce will help reduce the flow of water into our parking lot."

The site also just finished construction of an $8 million cofferdam, an enclosure that allows water to be pumped away from the ship. Bragg said that will facilitate repairs to the ship, but also protect the site from environmental issues. Because flooding could even threaten the battleship itself.

Normally, the ship actually sits on the bottom, rather than floating. It rests in a now form-fitting depression in the bottom, a cradle that evenly supports its weight. But during Hurricane Florence, the flooding floated it, giving the battleship's administrative team a scare.

If it floats out of its sandy cradle even a little, it could settle wrong when the flooding recedes and put too much pressure on one place in the hull, said Chris Vargo, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander who now serves as assistant director of the battleship.

"We don't want an old steel hull stressed like that," he said.

And even if it weren't damaged, it could come to rest tilted to one side, he said. That happened to the USS Alabama, which is similarly on exhibit in Mobile Bay.

Little more than half a dozen battleships remain worldwide.

Bragg said if this one is to survive, planning ahead with initiatives like "Living With Water" is crucial

"So we're going to keep this battleship around for another 50 or 100 years, in a time when you're going to see many of the historic ships disappear," he said.