Keeping preservation above water

Delaware is not only the First State to ratify the U.S. Constitution, but it’s also the nation’s lowest-lying state by average elevation. Anyone who has driven along Route 9 in New Castle or near Oak Orchard in Sussex County — and many places in between — knows that means frequent flooding, especially when the state is hit by strong storms such as Hurricane Sandy and more recently, Hurricane Ida.

Because much of the state was founded along the water, due to historical commerce, milling and fishing, many of the state’s historic resources and communities are at risk. That’s why state experts, supported by Governor John Carney’s Climate Action Plan, are considering what needs to be done to protect these valuable places and spaces.

“The water is important to Delaware’s history and to Delaware’s economics, and we need to figure out a way to live with and manage the water,” said Suzanne Savery, deputy director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. “We are all in this together.”

Savery recently attended an annual conference exploring the impacts of coastal hazards, such as frequent flooding, to learn more about what coastal communities and their historic experts are doing — or planning to do — to save historic resources and communities. She said it’s not just about saving buildings, but communities as well.

“There’s a level of justice that we need to look at when communities are flooded,” she said. By addressing community-wide issues, such as developing hazard mitigation or resilience plans, that in turn would help protect historical resources as part of that process. She said it’s also important to know that water itself has a memory — it wants to go where it has historically flowed, and we should respect that in current and future decision-making, such as where to site new buildings or house resources.

While Delaware’s proximity to the water is fantastic news for those who love life along the coast, it also brings with it serious risks, particularly to vulnerable and even yet-to-be-discovered historic resources. As the world’s climate changes and drives warmer air and ocean temperatures and the region sinks due to a geological phenomenon known as subsidence, sea-level rise becomes one of the state’s biggest threats. Delaware is in a “hotspot” for sea-level rise, and scientists estimate sea levels are rising at more than twice the global average.

In addition to the already known historical resources and communities, there are also archaeological sites along the water that are at risk of being lost. There are also likely many resources that have yet to be discovered that could be lost before they’re even found.

“We need to work to preserve the past so that we can learn from it,” Savery said. “History is always unfolding, so we’re always learning something new. But if it’s lost, then it’s going to be that much more challenging for our future.”

In addition to the resources and suggestions outlined in Delaware’s Climate Action Plan and looking for community-wide solutions and paths forward, Savery said the Division is encouraging staff to attend workshops like the “Keeping History Above Water” conference she just attended in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as the state’s Delaware Climate Leadership Academy.

“Now is the time to take action,” she said. “It is a work in progress, and we need to work together to find a smart way to manage that history.”