$2 million plan would replace part of the Wilmington landmark's parking lot with a tidal marsh

WILMINGTON -- When the weather forecast looks wet, Battleship North Carolina staff know they'll need their rain boots to get to work.

Capt. Terry Bragg, the Battleship's executive director, said, "In the last month, we've had several days where for two, three or four hours you cannot walk from our parking lot into the visitors center without walking into water that's 6, 8, 10 inches deep."

Bragg and battleship staff are working with engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Beaufort office to help the site better cope with increasingly frequent floodwaters. A draft concept of the $2 million Living With Water plan shows a restored tidal marsh sitting where the frequently flooded northern end of the parking lot is now, a boardwalk crossing it, and living shorelines running alongside the ship.

Dawn York, a senior coastal scientist at Moffatt & Nichol's Wilmington office, said, "The battleship is really taking the initiative to step up and be at the forefront of creating a healthier ecosystem and building resilience into their master strategy."

The problem

Flooding became more frequent on the Battleship's 65-acre property beginning in 2013 and 2014, said Bragg, who took over as executive director in 2009.

After heavy rains flooded the Battleship grounds in 2015, Bragg reviewed tidal records around Eagles Island, finding that to that point, 197 of the top 400 recorded flooding events at the site since 1940 had taken place since 2005.

The following years brought more floods. On Feb. 8, 2016, for instance, a coastal flooding report prepared by battleship staff showed a preliminary high tide of the Cape Fear River of 6.61 feet flooded much of Battleship Park and the parking lot, leaving employees and visitors unable to reach the site and causing a sink hole in the parking lot.

Than came Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. After Hurricane Florence, for instance, the Battleship's parking lot was filled with dead striped bass, left behind when the swollen Cape Fear receded.

"We already knew we had an issue," Bragg said, "and now the issue is more pressing than ever."

Even before Florence, Bragg was looking at the beginnings of the Living With Water Plan. Living With Water marks the third stage of the Battleship's Generations Campaign, following the construction of a cofferdam and the elevated Memorial Walkway around the ship, as well as the scheduled replacement of steel on the ship's hull later this year.

"The Generations Campaign is only five years old and now we've had to formally declare phase-three Living With Water," Bragg said. "This is that emergent of an issue."

The fix?

Moffatt & Nichol's work began last summer with an $18,000 contract to review of how living shorelines could work at the site. The concept involves removing hardened structures such as concrete blocks in favor of dirt, plants and other material that either absorb water or allow it to flow out. That then expanded into a wider concept looking at how the facility could better cope with flooding.

"We also wanted to look at (how we could) incorporate more of a holistic, comprehensive approach that would look at reducing flooding, reducing storm impacts, improving the environment and increasing visitation to the Battleship," York said.

Thus the concept plan, which shows a restored tidal marsh in place of much of the parking lot's northern end, spanned by a boardwalk where York envisions displays dedicated to wetlands restoration, sea-level rise and native flora and fauna, among other topics. Students walking from a bus lot on the site's northern end would cross the boardwalk on their way to the ship.

"This is an avenue for the science, technology and all of the different STEM aspects that we try to get across to our youth, our students. This is an in-the-field demonstration," York said of the proposal.

The battleship and the consulting firm plan to seek grants from NOAA and the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, as well as funding from private partners to support the project. Battleship staff hope the project can come to fruition within two years.

"We're not going to escape the water, so we've got to figure out how we can all still work with it so people can still come here and access the ship," said Meaghan Holmes, the battleship's director of development.

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or Adam.Wagner@GateHouseMedia.com.