In October 1961, tugboats pulled the USS North Carolina to its new home at Eagles Island, a tidal wetland and waterfowl habitat situated between the Brunswick and Cape Fear rivers, across from Wilmington.
It was the culmination of a years-long campaign to save the storied ship from the scrap heap. School kids across the state donated their milk money to help raise the $350,000 needed to buy the ship from the U.S. Navy and bring it to the state.
The most-decorated World War II battleship is now a museum and memorial to the 11,000 North Carolinians who fought and died in that great conflict. And yet it faces a new threat that will take a lot more than pocket change to fix.
From his office in the captain’s quarters on board the North Carolina, Executive Director Terry Bragg began to notice something was amiss in 2015: Even on sunny days, water from the Cape Fear River would sometimes cover half the parking lot at high tide.
Climate change is fueling sea-level rise, which has in turn made water levels in the adjacent river higher than it was in the past century. The water sometimes reached the top of the fire hydrant that stands in the middle of the parking lot—and at times would make the main access to the battleship and the visitors center impassable.
It’s hard to sell tickets if the public can’t board the ship, and the battleship depends on roughly $3.5 million in revenue to survive.
Bragg noticed something else: The cypress trees on Eagles Island had turned a chalky white, many of them dead or dying from the elevated levels of saltwater intruding into the river, another impact of rising seas.
In the years since Bragg first observed these changes, the battleship has weathered major storms. Hurricane Florence in 2018 severely damaged the visitors center. The roof had to be replaced, as well as water and sewer lines—a total of about $2 million in damage.
The storm shoved so much water into the battleship’s basin that the ship lifted out of 25 feet of mud and floated. When the flood water receded, it left 10,000 dead fish in the parking lot.
But the existential threat has been less the big storms and more the tireless trudge of the effects of climate change on this landlocked warship.
Living With Rising Waters
Bragg, a retired Navy captain, served on destroyers and frigates, and commanded a squadron of ships and their crews. He now oversees a crew of 25 at the battleship museum.
His chief operations officer, Chris Vargo, is a Coast Guard veteran and retired lieutenant commander who also served as the chief maritime inspector for North Carolina, making sure ships and boats that sailed in the state’s waters were seaworthy. Vargo oversees the battleship’s maintenance, keeping it safe and open for business.
Development Director Terry DeMeo brought a background in landscape design and public policy. She raises money to pay for major projects like the SECU Memorial Walkway, and a cofferdam—a steel structure that can drain water away from the ship that was needed to repair the ship’s hull—all told, more than $20 million worth of capital projects.
While none of them are scientists, what they observed concerned them.
Bragg said they needed data to support what they were seeing. He looked up data from the National Weather Service tidal gauge near the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, just downstream from the battleship. The weather service classifies flooding events on the Cape Fear River at the bridge at levels greater than 5.5 feet, as measured by the tidal gauge.
What Bragg found was startling: The battleship was seeing more flooding events in the past decade than in the last 60 years it has sat at Eagles Island. The tidal gauge reported 101 flooding events in 2018, and 142 flooding events between November 2018 and August 2019.
DeMeo was also keeping track of what she could see in their own parking lot. In 2020 alone, the parking lot flooded for more than 170 days, or about half of the year.
“When the battleship lifts off the bottom, and the parking lot’s flooding …” Bragg said.
“And nobody can get here,” Vargo interjected.
“And there’s 10,000 dead fish in the parking lot, those speak to us,” Bragg said.
The battleship is a major tourist attraction, and gets high marks on TripAdvisor and Travelocity. Folks come to Wilmington for the beaches, but many make the battleship a part of their vacation memories.
A 2013 report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that, from 2000-2010, the battleship accounted for $85 million in income to New Hanover County, and grew the local economy to the tune of $245 million in that time period.
In 2019, Bragg and his crew reached out to experts on coastal flooding to help them gather data and come up with a plan.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration planted sensors at the battleship site. These devices would record water levels at 10-minute intervals and give real-time data on how much water the battleship site was getting at any given time, and how much they needed to manage.
They also retained civil engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol to develop landscape design and stormwater management plans that could help control the flooding.
Those efforts birthed the Living With Water Campaign in 2019, a plan to make the battleship site more resilient to rising waters.
The plan calls for splitting the parking lots into sections, and raising the part closest to the visitors center above flood-stage levels. The other part, which floods regularly, will be turned into constructed wetlands with a tidal creek that will help drain the water back into the marshes.
The innovative part of the plan is to add a living shoreline between the battleship and visitors center, where a concrete seawall currently stands.
Living shorelines are a way to protect structures in a more environmentally-friendly way, said Lexia Weaver, living shoreline program director with the North Carolina Coastal Federation.
Living shorelines are built parallel to shorelines on sounds and rivers. They use plants, rocks, and oyster beds that allow water to flow through the structure to build up marshes and wetlands, and to stabilize shore erosion. They also help to improve air and water quality, and withstand the force of storms, Weaver said, whereas hardened structures like bulkheads and seawalls are damaged.
Living shorelines have been built at other locations along the North Carolina coast. NOAA has partnered with the Coastal Federation to create living shorelines in Pine Knoll Shores, Cedar Island, and Wanchese. The Town of Oriental built a living shoreline on a peninsula within its municipal limits in 2020. And Onslow County is using oyster beds to clean a section of the New River, as The Assembly reported earlier this year.
Bragg said he wants to make the Living With Water project a model for others to look at when it comes to coastal engineering and resiliency.
The crew has raised more than $4 million through grants from state and federal agencies, as well as donations, to fund the Living With Water plan.
So far, they said they aren’t getting any pushback.
“By and large, we’ve gotten a lot of ‘crickets,’” DeMeo said.
Part of the reason is the reputation of the battleship and how its business is structured, Bragg said. The battleship is an independent enterprise of the state—which operates on its own revenue.
That gives Bragg and his crew a free hand to do what they think needs to be done to preserve the ship, interpret history, and operate a major tourist attraction for the region.
“We have great credibility and I get a certain amount of cache as being captain of the battleship,” Bragg said. “We are very successful—so the crickets may be ‘you guys are doing pretty good, we are letting you craft a solution.’”
The other part of that, Vargo said, is the battleship crew doesn’t engage in the debate around why climate change is happening.
“That’s where we don’t go,” he said. “I tell people I’ve been here 10 years, the flooding has gotten really bad. The proof is right here: when we have a sunny, dry period, and we’re flooded. So it’s easy to talk about that.”
Museum Ships Feel Climate Effects
Other museum ships across the country are experiencing the effects of climate change in new and different ways.
The Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park in New York has three ships moored on Buffalo’s Lake Erie waterfront.
Shane Stephenson, director of the park’s museum collections, said they’ve seen more extreme weather in recent years, like wind storms that create seiches—large, standing waves that are usually seen in large lakes and enclosed bodies of water. They move up and down, like water in a bathtub, and can create dangerous currents below.
In 2022, USS The Sullivans partially sank after a seiche lifted and dropped the ship. It struck something on the lakebottom, which damaged the hull. It took days for work crews to pump out the water and stabilize the ship.
Stephenson said Buffalo is also seeing stronger blizzards, and when the snow melts, the falling water affects the welds between the hull and superstructures, which are made of two different metals.
All this creates new challenges in protecting the aging ships. Stephenson said curators have to think about maintenance schedules, checking empty spaces on the ships for flooding, and making sure mooring lines are durable and flexible.
“We now have to account for things that we didn’t account for before,” said Stephenson. “Now we all are paying much more attention.”
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are also becoming more attuned to climate change as a national security concern. The Navy’s Climate Action 2030 plan aims to reduce the service’s carbon footprint and make their shore installations more resilient to rising sea levels now and into the future.
In Wilmington, the USS North Carolina is enjoying its best visitation numbers in more than 10 years, Bragg said.
And after an anticipated busy summer, the crew will prepare for construction on the Living With Water project, which is set to begin once hurricane season ends in November.
Bragg pointed across the river to Wilmington, which sits on higher ground, and the riverwalk’s hardened sea wall.
While flooding has affected businesses on the riverwalk, they haven’t had to deal with quite the levels or frequency that the battleship has.
“We felt the impact first,” said Bragg.
Correction: The spelling of Chris Vargo’s name and the full title of NOAA have been corrected.
Ben McNeely has practiced journalism in some form and fashion since he was 14 years old. He spent his career at local North Carolina newspapers, and 10 years as a political producer at Spectrum News 1. He currently serves as editorial advisor for student media at North Carolina State University.
Disclosure: The author is a member of the Friends of the Battleship North Carolina, the non-profit group that supports the battleship memorial.