The U.S. Coast Guard faces $914 million shortfall after scrambling to respond to three devastating hurricanes this year within six weeks, the service’s top officer told a Senate subcommittee Thursday.
Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, said the shortfall accounts for a backlog of ship and aircraft maintenance and repairs for hangars and other facilities damaged by the storms. The Coast Guard surged its entire force in response, an “all-hands-on-deck” campaign requiring deployments from across the nation, he said.
“Based on Harvey, Irma and Maria alone, we need nearly a billion dollars to rebuild damaged infrastructure and restore eroded readiness,” Zukunft told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
He added: “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.”
The Coast Guard is credited with rescuing more than 11,000 people following the storms, using a mixture of small boats and helicopters to whisk people away from flooding and provide other lifesaving aid. The response began with Hurricane Harvey hitting Texas on Aug. 25, and continued with the service shifting ships and helicopters from the continental United States to the Caribbean after Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
For days after each storm, crews also worked to reopen ports destroyed by swirling winds and storm surge. Zukunft said Thursday that the service corrected more than 1,20o buoys and other navigational aids, and assisted in the removal of more than 3,600 damaged or sunken vessels following the storms.
Other missions have suffered as a result, Zukunft said, noting the Coast Guard’s ongoing drug interdiction efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The service set a record by seizing more than 455,000 pounds of cocaine in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, but the admiral said ships and aircraft were diverted temporarily to save lives elsewhere.
“The transnational criminal organizations were benefactors of our diminished presence at a time when 60,000 Americans perish each year from drug overdoses,” he said.
Zukunft’s testimony comes as the Coast Guard faces ongoing funding concerns. Earlier this year, officials were told to expect a $1.3 billion budget cut, money the White House wanted instead to help pay for President Trump’s proposed border wall. After a bipartisan outcry from lawmakers, it was decided the Coast Guard would receive a flat budget totaling $9.1 billion, well short of the $10.7 billion requested.
The admiral has called his cutter fleet “geriatric,” expressing frustration the Coast Guard was left behind while the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all saw funding increases in the Trump administration’s first budget.
“I’m delighted that Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps are being plussed up,” Zukunft said at a conference held by the Navy League in April, “but we’ve got nothing left.”
On Thursday, he noted also that the Coast Guard had not yet received funding to pay $90 million in damages at its facilities after Hurricane Matthew scraped the United States’ southeast coast in fall 2016. Only $15 million in supplemental funding was approved, “and we still have units operating out of makeshift piers that have not been hardened to withstand any kind of significant weather,” Zukunft said.
The only way to fix the problems, the admiral said, is with stable and predictable funding increases.
Several senators at the hearing zeroed in on the Coast Guard’s long-running request for funding to build new polar icebreakers. It has only one working heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, but it is more than 40 years old and requires significant attention to deploy each year.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) called it a “disgrace” that the situation has deteriorated as badly as it has and asked what can be done to jump-start the purchase of replacement ships.
Zukunft said five shipyards are in the process of assembling bids on a proposal so that a new heavy icebreaker can be floated by 2023. The ships, which are estimated to cost about $1 billion each, will require an investment up front, but are necessary as China and Russia both increasingly look to the polar regions for natural resources, he said.
“We look at carrier strike groups as strategic assets,” Zukunft said. “We need to look at icebreakers in the same realm, as these are strategic assets, and quite honestly we’re about out of them and we have abdicated the strategic game of chess to other potential strategic adversaries in the high latitudes.”