Juliette Kayyem is a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and faculty chair of the homeland security program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
What’s your backup plan for when your backup plan is underwater?
That’s the question we’re facing as Hurricane Dorian makes its way up the Eastern Seaboard. In its path are a string of military bases that, among their other vital missions, form the backbone of our response plan during homeland emergencies. For years, the military has turned a blind eye toward the warming climate. And if our military is playing defense against climate change, it cannot play offense when we need it to protect our citizens here or overseas.
Soon, if not after this hurricane, then perhaps after the next one, we will learn this lesson the hard way.
In emergency management, the first responders are always local officials. A plant explodes, a tornado strikes, a chemical truck overturns and, in most instances, local capacity is enough. Should locals need help, they turn to surrounding communities and, if necessary, state assets. That’s the first backup plan.
If states get overwhelmed, they then turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, our most misunderstood agency. FEMA does not maintain troops or significant supplies. It’s more like a 1-800-HELP!!! clearinghouse, taking requests from states, finding resources nearby or within the federal family, and moving them. FEMA is the second backup plan.
Should the needs become so demanding that civilian capacity is overwhelmed, then someone known as a DCO — a defense coordinating officer — steps in. Working under FEMA, the DCO essentially grabs military assets and personnel to help. A state needs 12 helicopters for search-and-rescue operations? The DCO finds them, commandeers them and sends them, fast. The DCO is dependent on military readiness to protect lives and property. In big emergencies, the DCO is our best — and final — backup plan.
It’s a measure of our security that our military bases favor the coasts; it’s a fact of history that many of those are on the East Coast. But no matter where they are, our military bases are unprepared for climate change. They often sit at or just a few feet above sea level, and are often surrounded by water, not merely near it. Much of their most important work actually takes place where land meets sea.
An early warning came in August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, flattened Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami. That storm should have triggered alarms from Portsmouth, N.H., to San Diego. By 2016, the National Intelligence Council listed more than 30 U.S. military installations at risk from rising sea levels. Then, in 2018, Hurricane Florence damaged Camp Lejeune in North Carolina; the same year, Hurricane Michael slammed into Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. The two storms closed parts of both facilities and racked up nearly $9 billion in repairs, many still unfinished. And that’s just to get the bases back to where they were before the storms.
This past June, after a five-month delay, the Pentagon finally satisfied a congressional request for a list of 46 bases most affected by climate change. That list includes eight in Florida, three in South Carolina, two in North Carolina and six in Virginia. Among them are the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Ga.; Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina; Lejeune in North Carolina; and Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia. These are all massive, strategic facilities; and, this week, they are busy beefing up their defenses against a hurricane.
But denial is still the order of the day. A June report from the Government Accountability Office criticized the Pentagon for its lack of planning with this tart assessment: “The assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble those of the recent past is no longer valid.” Earlier this year, the Navy, the service with the most bases at risk from rising sea levels, scuttled a task force on climate change.
This helps explain why the White House’s decision to divert funds from the military to support border wall funding is not only unsound policy but also dangerous. First, the White House last week moved $271 million in Department of Homeland Security funding, a majority of which was allocated for FEMA planning and response, to support border wall construction; this week, the defense secretary authorized more than $3 billion in military funds for barrier construction. Those funds were designated for military construction and upgrades — the very funds Congress designates to keep its bases at full readiness.
What happens when multiple backup plans falter? In disaster management, we call that a “single point of failure” — no redundancies, no spare capacity, nothing left to plug the holes. In the United States, we rely on the military to fill the gaps, especially as the storms grow larger and local capacity cannot grow to match.
Even if the backups work this time, Hurricane Dorian will not be the last storm. Someday, we will have a single point of failure. And it will be us.