Florence’s Path Shows Pentagon Has to Fight Climate Threats Too

(Bloomberg) -- As warships, soldiers and aircraft make their way back to ports and bases emptied in advance of Hurricane Florence, planners are left to assess what the Pentagon has warned could become more frequent: large-scale evacuations driven by rising seas and increasingly severe storms.

Florence’s path took it through or by an extraordinary concentration of American military might, from the world’s largest navy base in Norfolk to one of the largest military bases of any kind, the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg. The Army, Navy and Air Force all have four-star commands in the region where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization maintains its five-star leadership. Even NASA maintains its Langley Research Center there.

Florence’s Path Shows Pentagon Has to Fight Climate Threats Too

In the days preceding Florence’s landfall, dozens of ships were ordered to sea, more than 100 airplanes flown out and tens of thousands of troops and their families were relocated.

Many of the biggest facilities were spared when the storm tacked southward, but the dress rehearsal came amid a growing awareness of the implications of climate change and sea-level rise on the nation’s military capabilities. Planners have already been tallying the potential costs of hardening facilities -- and even asking if they shouldn’t be relocated.

“It’s a very serious threat if we don’t deal with it,” said Elizabeth Andrews, a professor and director of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William & Mary Law School. “We dodged a bullet, thank goodness, with Hurricane Florence, but we could have not dodged it.”

Even without a direct hit, the hurricane exacted a toll in a massive logistical operation to get personnel and equipment out of the way. Tens of thousands of troops were evacuated last week from at least five bases from Virginia to South Carolina, according to Military.com, which calls itself the largest military membership organization. Many were ordered back to base over the weekend.

Evacuation orders affected some iconic military bases, including the Marine Corps’ Parris Island Recruit Depot, just north of Hilton Head, South Carolina, where almost 20,000 recruits are trained each year. Non-essential military and civilian personnel were told to move at least 100 miles away, but no more than 400, and will be compensated for expenses. Graduation ceremonies were moved to other facilities, according to Military.com.

Joint Base Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina, also was ordered evacuated, as was Naval Air Station Oceana-Dam Neck Annex in Virginia, home of Seal Team Six. The commander of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina set off a social media firestorm when the decision was made for marines to shelter in place on base.

In 2013, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Congress ordered the Army to conduct an in-depth assessment of the northern East Coast’s vulnerability to rising seas. The study identified Norfolk, Virginia, as one of nine areas of major concern and a separate report is in the works to identify steps that should be taken to shore up its defenses against nature.

That’s sure to set off a debate over spending.

It’s difficult to get additional funding for the needed fortifications when there are $100 billion just in deferred maintenance needs at U.S. military facilities, said John Conger, director of the Center for Climate & Security and a former assistant deputy under secretary of defense for installations & environment.

“Do you spend extra money protecting facilities when you haven’t paid to maintain them?’’ Conger said.

Climate Change Boosts National Security Risks: DOD Report

The military has taken some steps, such as minimizing new construction in flood plains, he said. While the vulnerability of bases is not at the top of the list of problems, it must be on the list, Conger said. “This is a risk that shouldn’t be ignored,” he said.

The Navy last year published a 193-page overview of climate change and how naval infrastructure planners may take new threats into consideration. The handbook provides guidance on risk analysis and decision-making, with tips on everything from levees to flood-proofing.

Sherri Goodman, a former Defense undersecretary for environmental security, asks a larger question likely to spark heated debates: “Given the extent of sea-level rise, coastal erosion and storm surge that’s occurring along the mid Atlantic coast, should we continue to have such a heavy concentration of military facilities in that area?”

Threat Multiplier

Goodman, who a decade ago coined the phrase “threat multiplier” to describe global warming’s impact on national security concerns, is now a senior adviser at the Center for Climate & Security and a senior fellow with the Wilson Center.

It’s a question that military leaders ask themselves, she said, but in the absence of authority to do anything about it, they don’t push it, and members of Congress are extremely protective of military bases in their districts, which are generally local engines of economic activity and points of civic pride.

Virginia has created the new position this year of special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection, said William & Mary’s Andrews. The vulnerability of military bases such as Norfolk could be a national security risk if it’s not addressed correctly, she said.

A draft study by the Army Corps of Engineers suggests $1.4 billion in projects that would help Norfolk and environs guide water away from where it wants to go or remove infrastructure likely to get in its way, according to Greg Steele, chief of the water resources division of the Corps’s Norfolk District.

‘Water Just Rises’

A defense authorization passed last month contains a clause that enables spending on road damage or risks from “recurrent flooding and sea level fluctuation.”

“This is not a political problem,” said Paul Olsen, former commander of the Norfolk District. “This is a problem of strategic engineering, of land-use planning, of preparedness, because the water doesn’t care about your political inclinations, or about a line on a map. The water just rises. It’s something we can track with the tidal gauges. This is an empirical fact for us in this area.”

He called sea-level rise “sort of like a disaster in very slow motion.”

Sea levels are rising almost 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) a decade in the Norfolk area, known as Hampton Roads. That’s about twice the global average, thanks to shifts in ocean currents and other factors. Pumping of freshwater for use in the region has led coastal Virginia’s aquifers to compact and the land on top of it to subside. All of this is occurring in a region with geology complicated by a meteor that struck the area 35 million years ago.

King Tide

Some 65,000 thousand people live or work in the 10 square miles of Naval Station Norfolk. “It’s a city within a city,” said Robert Clark, a former commanding officer of the base who now works at Old Dominion University.

The long-term dilemmas of climate change stretched beyond the daily decisions of Norfolk’s commanding officer, Clark said.

“At Naval Station Norfolk, we do experience flooding quite a bit, the tidal surges, especially if you have a high tide or a king tide, and you’ve got storm surge and wind blowing the tide in. That creates a problem.” Flooding of the installation quickly dissipates, he said. “It doesn’t really stick around.”

Naval Station Norfolk experienced no noteworthy impacts during Hurricane Florence, according to Beth Baker, public affairs officer for the Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. In the longer term, “The Navy works to ensure installations and infrastructure are resilient to a wide range of challenges, including climate and other environmental considerations,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ryan de Vera, a U.S. Navy spokesperson. An email to the Pentagon press office wasn’t returned.

Infrastructure Development

The Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment is supporting a study to help guide future infrastructure and development efforts in the area.

The economic anchor that military installations give to American communities ultimately are likely to solve the many coming issues in climate-change adaptation. Bases, and the communities around them, will become resilient, and continue economic growth, by becoming better equipped to deal with risks.

Eastern North Carolina, for example, has a concentration of military personnel among the highest in the country with more than 113,000 active military personnel and eight major bases.

“In many cases that’s going to be the answer,” said Goodman, the former Defense undersecretary. “The needs of insuring that our military installations and communities are resilient to a changing climate could in many cases raise all boats.”

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