David Helvarg / San Francisco Chronicle – 2019-01-11 09:56:31
Organize US Military to Respond to Natural Disasters
David Helvarg / San Francisco Chronicle
(January 2, 2019) — It’s time to call in the Marines, and also the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard to respond to the growing number of climate-linked natural disasters.
When it comes to national security, no threat compares to our changing climate and its intensification of hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves and other natural disasters. If the rise of Nazi Germany and the nuclear balance of terror with the Soviet Union were the major strategic threats to overcome in the last century, climate change is the major challenge of this one.
Response and coordination could be provided with a Disaster Response Command, which would be the Pentagon’s 11th unified combatant command. Each of the Department of Defense’s 10 existing commands is made up of at least two military services working together on a common mission.
Their missions are defined as regional (Africa, Europe), functional (special operations, transportation) or threat-specific (the US Cyber Command was stood up in 2017 in recognition of the threat cyberwarfare represents to the security of the United States).
Global warming is now affecting the United States and poses a profound threat that could cost thousands of lives and $500 billion a year before the end of the century, according to the most recent US National Climate Assessment, a report produced by 13 federal agencies including the Department of Defense.
In 2015, the Department of Defense released its own assessment focused on the security implications of climate change — which it found to be grave — and directed its combatant commands to integrate climate-related impacts into their planning cycles.
The results have been a mixed bag, including a small-army deployment to North Carolina during Hurricane Florence. Army Sgt. Demetri Robinson recalled rescuing three men and a cat. “They were so glad we also saved the cat.”
Designed for war fighting, the Pentagon has always been challenged in its efforts at projecting “soft power.” I first witnessed military soft power when the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima docked at the New Orleans waterfront after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, its deck acting as a mobile emergency airfield while also providing dry berthing, air conditioning, showers and meals for thousands of National Guard personnel and relief workers. Unfortunately, the Department of Defense had not deployed its full resources until day four of that disaster.
Years later, the Iwo Jima joined the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off the badly impacted Florida Keys for several days during the 2017 hurricane season to little effect while a naval hospital ship, the 250-bed Comfort, deployed late to Puerto Rico, and admitted only six patients a day because of a lack of coordination with other response forces.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency can call on some 6,000 members of 28 National Urban Search & Rescue Response task forces within local fire departments around the nation just as Cal Fire can mobilize more than 10,000 firefighters, hundreds of fire engines and dozens of aircraft.
With increased deployments straining state and municipal budgets, there is a growing need for larger, more integrated (and well-financed) forces. The Department of Defense’s National Guard Bureau is well-positioned to staff and direct a Disaster Response Command. Disaster relief has long been a key mission for the National Guard.
A new combatant command could also tap the capabilities of the only branch of the military located outside the Department of Defense, the US Coast Guard, with its depth of experience in search and rescue, incident command and surge response (it rescued 33,000 people during Hurricane Katrina, another 16,000 during 2017’s hurricanes).
One option might see the Coast Guard transferred into the Department of Defense from its berth at the Department of Homeland Security (this would also guarantee its people got paid during government shutdowns).
This new combatant command is unlikely to be stood up during the term of our climate-denier-in-chief, but planning and debate is needed today if we have any hope of responding to the crisis that’s already upon us.
David Helvarg is executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. He is the author of Rescue Warriors — The US Coast Guard, America’s Forgotten Heroes.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.