Image credit: Tidewater official trailer.

In Hampton Roads, a moniker for both a massive natural harbor in Southeast Virginia and a metropolitan region comprising 17 small cities and municipalities, tidal flooding is as common as Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

Oh yes. Lest one forget, Hampton Roads is also home to the world’s largest Naval base.

Low-lying roads flood so often that drivers use depth markers positioned on highway shoulders to gauge whether they’ll be able to pass through.

Why is this happening? Sea-level rise. And why are the seas rising? Well, let’s not talk about that.

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Shortsighted!, you might say. Or worse. But to film director Roger Sorkin, talking about sea-level rise – and more importantly, how to adapt to it and build more resilient, forward-thinking communities – without talking about climate change is a well-considered strategy.

Avoiding buzz words that may turn people off

For the record, Sorkin is no climate change contrarian. He acknowledges that carbon emissions are responsible for sea-level rise. And that we humans are responsible. But he also believes in meeting folks where they are. That’s why, he explains, his audiences do not hear the words “climate change,” “global warming,” or “carbon” in “Tidewater,” his documentary film about sea-level rise in Hampton Roads.

“Stories matter to us,” Sorkin says. “And the building blocks are the words that you use to tell stories. Certain words press peoples’ buttons and produce visceral reactions.”

Sorkin hopes to use “Tidewater” as a way of engaging conservative coastal communities and Republican lawmakers in swing states. His hope is that the film’s apolitical tack will appeal to viewers who tend to associate all things related to climate change with liberalism. “It’s really intended to nationalize the story of Hampton Roads as a real national security concern,” he says.

When stories about sea-level rise are framed around a narrative “that leads with ‘look at what humans have done this to the planet,’ for a lot of people, that puts their guard up. So, we’re just being conscious of the way the message is crafted,” he explains.

Tidewater, which premiered at an environmental film festival in Washington, D.C., in March and has since been screened at festivals in Texas and California, was not produced as a one-off film. Rather, it’s the first of a number of films that Sorkin plans to produce through American Resilience Project, a non-profit founded to advance policies focused on adaptation and building resilience to the impacts of climate change. Sorkin, who is executive director of American Resilience Project, says future films by the group will focus on issues related to electrical generation and grid stability, natural resources depletion, and extreme weather.

Risks, as described by military personnel and retirees

Tidewater is told largely through the voices of retired and current military personnel – one in six Hampton Roads area residents is associated in some capacity with the military, and 40 percent of the local economy relies on defense spending.

Tidal inundation often cuts power to Navy piers. Impassable roads keep sailors and citizen employees from getting to work. All of these factors degrade Naval readiness and waste time and resources across the 14 bases scattered throughout the region. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that by 2100, Norfolk Station, one of the key bases in the area, will experience tidal flooding 280 times a year.

Given a mixture of rising seas and land subsidence, sea level at Norfolk is now 14.5 inches higher than it was in the early 20th century, when the Navy began building bases in the region.

The Defense Department has long considered sea-level rise one of many threats linked to climate change, and has designed programs to address it. The fate of those programs under President Trump – who entered office just as Sorkin was wrapping up filming – is thus far unknown: The Department of Defense, under Secretary James Mattis, has not expressed detailed public views on sea-level rise issues or how they may affect Norfolk Station or national security generally.

Sorkin says his intension with the film was to show the military as a proactive party that wants to find ways to make Hampton Roads more resilient to rising seas – but to not dwell on the underlying causes.

Sending a message, and not as ‘a journalist’

“I have an agenda – I’m not a journalist,” says Sorkin. “I don’t support the military in everything they do, but I want them to succeed in their efforts around sea-level rise and climate change.”

But a few pointed moments in the film do send a message. “When I see votes along partisan lines or something like that, that kind of infuriates me,” says Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, discussing the ways tidal flooding is hurting the region. “You know, vote your heart, vote your conscience, what’s good for the country – not what’s good for my party.”

The impacts of rising waters do not just hit the Navy: tidal flooding disrupts daily life, preventing kids from getting to school, and leaving vulnerable people stranded in their homes. In one poignant scene, resident Karen Speights brings a life jacket that she had just purchased to her elderly mother, who lives alone. “Once that water comes in, then how do you get out?” she asks. “I know I can get out, but how do I get her out?”

“There’s this certain element to living here dealing with water that adds a little element of stress to daily life,” says Retired Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, who plays a prominent role in the film and is actively pushing for collaborative efforts between the Navy and local governments aimed at improving local infrastructure to combat rising waters.

Tidewater is to make its Hampton Roads premiere on May 23, and from there Sorkin will begin hosting small, private or semi-private screenings with key legislators on Capitol Hill.

“What we’re trying to do is use film as way to influence public policy, or catalyze investment or behavioral change,” he says. He thinks the voices featured in Tidewater will do that.

“If anyone can get through to the members of Congress,” he says. “It’s someone in uniform.”

Mary Catherine O’Connor is an independent journalist who reports on climate change, technology, business, and recreation.