The Coast Guard has been responding to natural disasters including tropical cyclones (mainly Atlantic hurricanes) for decades. Its expertise in search and rescue (SAR) makes it an ideal agency to assist. However, recent storms have required truly monumental efforts, with 2017 being a defining moment. In that year, operational and infrastructure costs from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria totaled nearly $1 billion for the Coast Guard alone. Climate data suggest similar weather events are on the rise and could make 2017 a norm rather than an exception. The Coast Guard will and should continue to respond, but enhanced training to increase efficiency and safety will be required. With a stagnant service size and growing responsibility to respond to hurricanes and related weather events, the Coast Guard must do all it can to optimize and become more proficient in their efforts.
More people and infrastructure are increasingly in places affected by extreme weather events. Even without considering the climate data, it is easy to foresee a higher demand for Coast Guard response based on exposure alone. One publication noted that for tropical weather systems, exposure and vulnerability are important drivers in risk analysis and likely more important than climate change.5 This is also the reason that weather events in the United States are costing more and more money, even when adjusting for inflation.4 Overall, whether it is an increase in storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, exposure, or a combination of those things, the future will very likely require continued increases in Coast Guard response.
The U.S. National Search and Rescue Supplement assigns most SAR missions in the maritime domain to the Coast Guard. During catastrophic events, its duties and responsibilities are supposed to be in maritime, coastal, and waterborne operations. However, in practice, this is rarely the case. In floods and hurricanes, Coast Guard missions can involve saving people from rooftops, transporting patients to different triage points throughout a city, and evacuating damaged or flooded buildings. These examples point to an area where the Coast Guard rarely trains: urban search and rescue (USAR).
Aviation is one of the Coast Guard’s most visible and effective response elements. However, Coast Guard aircrews do not train in USAR and rarely conduct SAR training over land. Several elements of their training are transferrable to a variety of missions, but when a typical aircrew responds to a hurricane it is likely to be first time in a USAR environment. This is in sharp contrast to normal aviation training where pilots, flight mechanics, and rescue swimmers are required to conduct numerous exercises semiannually, some of which are rarely, if ever, performed operationally. Training for the unexpected is not a bad thing—but only if training for the expected is included.
Airspace deconfliction has also been challenging when so many assets respond at once. During Hurricane Harvey, many government aircraft—dozens from the Coast Guard alone—were operating throughout Houston. In conjunction with several other federal and state agencies, the skies were saturated over the city and without the normal assistance provided by air traffic controllers. At times it was so dense that aircraft traffic collision avoidance systems, which give audible alerts when other aircraft are near, essentially became useless from saturation. Aircrew and dispatchers will need to develop a safer system for deconfliction during future storms.
Ground operations are also vital, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides teams for surface USAR at a federal level.13 The Coast Guard also has shallow-water SAR crews called Western River Flood Punts (WRFP), which are increasingly being used for hurricane response. However, the crews lack the same training in USAR. Navigating unfamiliar flooded streets, accessing dangerous buildings to evacuate survivors, and avoiding downed trees and power lines succeeds more as a result of good judgment and luck rather than the proper training. WRFP documents need updating to reflect the actual scenarios units face. Integrated training with USAR teams and a mission review are key steps to their continued success.
No matter who is responding, there are lessons to be learned from every storm. However, the Coast Guard needs to ensure these lessons are promulgated and influence policy. Training for major storms should take place year-round, so the lessons are not wasted. For instance, during Hurricane Harvey, operations centers quickly became overwhelmed when calls for assistance tied up phone lines for days. Coast Guard personnel realized that because of this, many people reached out for help over social media. Service members adapted and began to track social media, receiving assistance from other agencies, Coast Guard Academy cadets, and even Good Samaritans. Being able to repeat that success during the next major storm means teaching responders how to do it.
The Coast Guard is much more than SAR. Oil spills are responded to by the hundreds after large storms. Port assessments must take place as soon as possible so that vital supplies can reach affected cities. Surge personnel are brought in to staff incident management teams and operations centers. Damage assessment teams get critical infrastructure back online. Considering all the aspects of a disaster the Coast Guard mitigates, it is easy to see how these events can be so costly. The challenge for the Coast Guard will continue to be making these efforts as efficient as possible. Otherwise missions outside of disaster response will be affected, which is what happened in 2017.
Resourcing the Needs
By far the greatest cost for the Coast Guard from recent hurricanes has been infrastructure, which desperately needs improvement. The service can not effectively respond if its own units are not functioning, as Hurricane Maria showed. Communications were essentially wiped out between units in Puerto Rico and units off the island. For several days, a few satellite phones, line-of-site radio, and word of mouth were used to pass updates, assign tasking, and receive messages of distress. Other places, where the Coast Guard has invested in storm-resistant infrastructure, have faired much better and allowed units to remain fully operational.16 As one study found, every dollar spent in mitigation to infrastructure saves four dollars in future spending. The Coast Guard must remain committed to updating its infrastructure.
Logistics are another impediment, especially plaguing aviation in large-scale events. When aircraft and aircrews were brought in from all over the country during Hurricane Harvey, Houston instantly became the largest air station in the Coast Guard by several magnitudes. The Incident Command System can bring in excess personnel while maintaining defined roles; combining dozens of aircraft and aircrews is a messier process. Crews must be assigned to planes and missions, but the same personnel must complete frequent maintenance, and it is not always clear who should be doing what. All this happens in too-small hangars that lack the normal computer maintenance and diagnostic tools. Aircraft usage also became an issue. In just three months, Coast Guard C-130s flew more operational hours than were intended for the entire year. Responders in Hurricane Harvey were able to adapt, but methods should be standardized and practiced before the next large-scale event happens, not during it.
Responding to hurricanes remains a critical mission and its importance will only increase. Of all the natural disasters, they continue to be the costliest and deadliest.4 The Coast Guard response has saved tens of thousands of lives. Service members are going to continue to do whatever it takes to get the job done. As the mission grows, however, that is going to mean improved training, more secure funding, upgraded infrastructure, incorporating lessons into policy, and continuing to increase response efficiency. During nearly three straight months of hurricane response in 2017, resources were pulled from other Coast Guard missions. Even with sufficient funding (however unlikely), mission prioritization will still be an issue given the service’s personnel constraints—there simply are not have enough personnel and assets to do everything. Mitigating now the issues the Coast Guard faces will pay dividends for the next major storms.