A wave of hurricanes that smashed portions of the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico in August and September has cost the Coast Guard nearly $1 billion, not to mention impacts to readiness and ongoing operations such as drug interdiction, the service’s top official said on Thursday.
The monetary costs are related to the need to “rebuild damaged infrastructure and restore eroded readiness,” Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the Coast Guard, told the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard. The financial impacts of the storm are “my greatest concern” when it comes to the various costs the Coast Guard has suffered from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, he said.
The Coast Guard is still feeling the pinch from costs it incurred last fall in response to Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti hard and caused flooding and power outages in U.S. regions in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic.
Zukunft said Matthew caused the Coast Guard $90 million in damages yet it only recovered $15 million through supplemental appropriations.
“We have units operating out of makeshift piers that have not been hardened to withstand any kind of significant weather,” he said.
The recent storms also posed other costs to the Coast Guard. Readiness has been impacted because resources used in response and recovery operations were “well above planned rates,” depot maintenance on cutters and aircraft was canceled, and personnel training investments were “terminated,” Zukunft said.
Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening remarks that the Coast Guard’s response to the hurricanes included 95 aircraft, 55 cutters, 129 rescue craft, and the mobilization of 3,000 personnel. He said Coast Guard helicopters flew “almost 1,600 hours,” which is more than doubled the total hours its H-60 Jayhawks fly in a year.
There were also opportunity costs, Zukunft said. Assets applied to the storms were taken from all over the U.S. and reduced search and rescue, drug interdiction and security operations elsewhere, he said.
“Nowhere was this more profound than in the Eastern Pacific,” he said. “And the Transnational Criminal Organizations were benefactors of our diminished presence at a time when over 60,000 Americans perish each year from drug overdoses.”
In his written remarks, Zukunft said the 270-foot medium-endurance cutter Forward shifted from performing a counter-drug patrol to delivering supplies and providing command and control services following the hurricanes.
“So given the many competing demands in our country today and the propensity to fix only what is broken, I am concerned the Coast Guard will continue to be known solely for our success, and not what we need to be made whole,” Zukunft told the panel.
Zukunft has said before and told the panel again yesterday, that he wants at least $2 billion annually for the service’s acquisition account and 5 percent annual increases for its operation and maintenance budgets so that it can keep up with mission demands without sacrificing readiness. He also pointed out that that while only 4 percent of his budget comes from defense appropriations, 40 percent of the Coast Guard’s major cutters “are serving today under the operational command of a Department of Defense geographic combatant commander around the globe.”
The additional funding would let the Coast Guard recapitalize its assets, sustain operations, increase its workforce, and complete work on its $1.6 billion backlog of repairs and upgrades to its shore infrastructure, Zukunft said.