PORTSMOUTH, Va. — At the foot of the Chesapeake Bay in southeast Virginia lies a Naval shipyard older than the nation itself. One of the country's first warships was built here in 1799. So was the first battleship, and decades later the first aircraft carrier.
Over the past three centuries, Norfolk Naval Shipyard has been blockaded and burnt to the ground, only to be rebuilt again and again. Today, it's one of four Navy shipyards that maintain the nation's nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, which enable the Pentagon to respond quickly to military and humanitarian crises across the globe.
But the shipyard now faces its greatest existential threat: rising seas and extreme weather driven by climate change.
In the past 10 years, Norfolk Naval Shipyard has suffered nine major floods that have damaged equipment used to repair ships, and the flooding is worsening, according to the Navy. In 2016, rain from Hurricane Matthew left 2 feet of water in one building, requiring nearly $1.2 million in repairs.
Image: Map of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard at the foot of Chesapeake Bay.The Norfolk Naval Shipyard lies at the foot of Chesapeake Bay. And that wasn't even a direct hit — the most immediate worry, former military leaders say, is a strong storm that blows right through the area.
"It would have the potential for serious, if not catastrophic damage, and it would certainly put the shipyard out of business for some amount of time," said Ray Mabus, who was the Navy secretary under President Barack Obama. "That has implications not just for the shipyard, but for us, for the Navy."
Among the shipyard's greatest vulnerabilities are its five dry docks, which are waterside basins that can be sealed and pumped dry to expose a ship's hull for repairs. Once inside, vessels are often cut open, leaving expensive mechanical systems vulnerable to damage from storms and flooding.
The dry docks "were not designed to accommodate the threats" of rising seas and stronger storms, according to a 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office. Navy officials warned the government watchdog agency that flooding in a dry dock could cause "catastrophic damage to the ships."
Already, high-tide flooding is contributing to extensive delays in ship repairs, the GAO said, disrupting maintenance schedules throughout the Navy's fleet. Sea level in Norfolk has risen 1.5 feet in the past century, twice the global average, in part because the coastline is sinking.
The Navy has erected temporary flood walls and uses thousands of sandbags to protect the dry docks at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. The Navy has also begun elevating some equipment, but the facility remains vulnerable, according to a Defense Department survey on the effects of extreme weather on military bases, obtained through a public records request. In response, the Navy proposed a more permanent barrier estimated to cost more than $30 million, part of a 20-year, $21 billion plan submitted to Congress this year to modernize Norfolk as well as Navy shipyards in Maine, Washington and Hawaii.
But the new projects have yet to be approved.
The Navy said it takes extensive measures to limit damage from flooding. "These requirements ensure the safety of our personnel, our ships (nuclear and non-nuclear), and shipyard infrastructure," William M. Couch, a Navy spokesman, said in an email.
In October, Hurricane Michael offered a glimpse of what can happen to coastal military bases in a storm's path when it leveled much of Tyndall Air Force Base, damaging more than a dozen stealth fighters undergoing maintenance.
Months earlier, the Federal Emergency Management Agency envisioned what might occur if a similar storm were to strike Norfolk — by driving a computer-simulated Category 4 hurricane directly into the region as part of a national disaster preparedness drill. Their simulated cyclone's 140-mph winds snapped power lines and cell towers, hobbling the grid and communications, and whipped the Chesapeake Bay into a 12-to-15-foot storm surge, high enough to flood the downtowns of nearby cities.
The Navy declined to disclose the precise damage to the shipyard in the scenario, but a news release described the aftermath as "New Orleans without the levee system." National hazard maps show a storm of that magnitude would likely submerge the entire facility.
"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," said retired Vice Adm. Dennis V. McGinn, who was assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment until January 2017. "And when it hits, how vulnerable are we going to be, and are we going to be standing there saying, "oh, we woulda, coulda, shoulda?'"
LIMITED TIME, LITTLE PROGRESS The Navy has long understood the stakes of global warming. It has many coastal facilities, and its forces are often first on the scene of humanitarian emergencies triggered by extreme weather.
A decade ago, the Navy commissioned the National Research Council to study the risks climate change poses to its ability to respond to these crises and keep the country safe. The 2011 report said a thawing Arctic would stress the military's fleet by opening a vast new arena to police in particularly harsh conditions. The report also found that 56 Naval facilities worth a combined $100 billion would be threatened if sea level rose about 3 feet.
The report warned that the Navy needed to begin protecting the most vulnerable facilities immediately, and had only 10 to 20 years to begin work on the rest. Seven years later, there's been little progress, said retired Rear Adm. Jonathan White, who led the Navy's Task Force Climate Change before retiring in 2015.
"Many of those recommendations, most if not all, have gone unanswered," he said. "Every year you wait to make decisions and take actions, the risk goes up. And I think the expense also goes up."
Estimated one million Uighur Muslims vanish into Chinese "re-education' camps Across the military, the response to climate change has been piecemeal and inadequate, according to interviews with more than a dozen retired officers and former senior-ranking national security officials.
"It's probably on the radar, but it's below what we would call the cut line," said retired Rear Adm. David W. Titley, who initiated the Navy's Task Force Climate Change in 2009. Senior officers spend their days fielding urgent requests for money and resources, he said, and have little left for long-term threats. "That's probably how it's looked at: "Yes this is a problem, but I still see the shipyard out there,' and so it gets kicked down the road."
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