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Migration, Drug Activity Spiked While Coast Guard Worked Hurricanes

Coast Guard Air Station Houston responds to search-and-rescue requests after Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Aug. 27, 2017. Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft says responding to three hurricanes in succession pushed the service to its limits. Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland/Coast Guard
Coast Guard Air Station Houston responds to search-and-rescue requests after Hurricane Harvey in Houston on Aug. 27, 2017. Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft says responding to three hurricanes in succession pushed the service to its limits. Petty Officer 3rd Class Johanna Strickland/Coast Guard

With three hurricanes in fast succession this fall pushing Coast Guard responders and relief assets to their limits, bad actors have taken advantage, the commandant of the Coast Guard said.

Adm. Paul Zukunft on Thursday told a panel of the Senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that responding in force to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria meant fewer resources for missions such as drug interdiction and border protection.

“As we’ve been doing restoration work, we’ve seen an increase in illegal migration activity … and we’ve had several significant drug seizures just to the south of Puerto Rico,” he said.

“[They are] perhaps mindful that maybe the Coast Guard is distracted and they might be able to sneak in a shipment of drugs and illegal migrants,” Zukunft said. “So we’re still trying to balance all of that, but right now, we’re keeping our head above water.”

Cutters and aircraft that typically would be tasked with performing search-and-rescue and drug interdiction operations were sent to the Caribbean to save lives, he said.

“The transnational criminal organizations were benefactors of our diminished presence at a time when over 16,000 Americans perish each year in drug overdoses,” he told the committee.

Zukunft painted a grim picture of where the Coast Guard finds itself in terms of resources and readiness as the relief missions draw to a close.

In all, the service rescued more than 11,000 people and 1,500 pets; directed the removal of 3,600 damaged or sunken boats; and restored ports and waterways, he said.

In the process, the service incurred about $1 billion in damage to its own infrastructure and in depleted readiness costs — a figure that represents more than a tenth of the service’s average annual budget.

This expense is exacerbated by unrepaired damage from Hurricane Matthew, which hit Haiti and the southeastern United States in 2016, Zukunft said.

Of the $90 million in damage the Coast Guard sustained in damage to its piers, boathouses, and other infrastructure, a supplemental budget measure covered only $15 million, he said.

“Obviously, if we’re the first responders, we’re on the front lines where stations are located, where hurricanes have hit this hurricane season,” Zukunft told Military.com.

The Coast Guard budget request for 2018, included within the Department of Homeland Security request, calls for $10.66 billion in total funding, a modest increase from last year’s budget. That figure includes $1.2 billion in acquisition and construction and $98.6 million in operations and maintenance funding.

But as the Coast Guard seeks to maintain presence and invest heavily in assets, including a new fleet of icebreakers, the service needs more.

“Going forward, we require 5 percent annualized growth in our operations and maintenance account and a floor of $2 billion to our acquisition account,” Zukunft said. “This will allow me to dig out of the [Budget Control Act] basement, sustain operations, and grow our workforce. We’re also building out our modernized fleet and reducing our $1.6 billion shore infrastructure backlog.”

If the Coast Guard doesn’t receive the funding it needs to restore damaged assets, maintain and build, the result will be a less capable service, he said.

“The first mission it’ll be felt in is our ability to conduct search-and-rescue operations, which is the one mission we make every effort not to compromise our capability in,” Zukunft said. “But it would compromise our capability.”

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