Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft took a few minutes in mid-October to talk with Coast Guard Outlook about the Coast Guard and its response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria – all within a month.
COAST GUARD OUTLOOK: Could you explain the Coast Guard’s unique role in a natural disaster?
Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft: Within the national response framework, there are key tasks assigned to different federal agencies. One of the Coast Guard’s key roles is in emergency support function #9, which deals with search and rescue. In a natural disaster, however, search and rescue may not occur out at sea. As we saw during Hurricane Harvey, 50 inches of rain threatened the metropolitan areas, placing many underwater. And it becomes an urban search and rescue mission for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Where were the assets moved in order to get out of the path of the storms? And then where were the potential first responders prepositioned?
Each response was a little bit different. For Hurricane Harvey, we moved towards the hurricane and not away. And we pulled resources from across the Coast Guard – Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast – we had personnel on the ground; in the air [we had] over 40 helicopters. After looking at the storm track, we moved [our cutters] out of the way. And then as soon as the hurricane passes, they [the cutters] will come in behind it. And, at the same time, we evacuate all of our dependents while the first responders continue to stand the watch in these impacted areas.
In the Caribbean, what was the condition of the aids to navigation following Hurricane Irma?
Well, Hurricane Irma brought devastation to St. John and St. Thomas. Yet, we were able to bring assets on scene to reconstitute those ports. And those very same resources were double-tasked to do the equivalent of what I would call maritime sealift: delivering workers, water, and food. And in fact, even as of today [Oct. 18], St. John is still without electrical power.
After Maria hit, there were restrictions on transits into some of the seaports in Puerto Rico. What is the condition of the port infrastructure on the island and the condition of the aids to navigation now? Can you speak to that a little bit?
I was just in San Juan last Friday [Oct. 13]. I’ve been down there twice now. So, all the ports are now open, all the aids to navigation working properly, and the throughput within the ports is returning to normal. The bigger challenge is distributing the commodities from the ports to the communities. Some of these communities have had bridge and road washouts. The interior of Puerto Rico is very, very rugged, and it [the hurricane] has literally cut off some of those mountainous communities. So, getting commodities from the ports to the end users still presents some challenges for us. And in many cases, we’re using our helicopters to deliver relief supplies to these stricken communities.
So, at this point, have all the districts responded to one or more of the hurricanes and storms?
Yes. This affected two of our districts. Hurricane Harvey primarily affected our 8th Coast Guard District headquartered in New Orleans, with the largest impact obviously being Corpus Christi, Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur. Hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted St. Thomas and St. John and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It skimmed across the north coast of Cuba – we’re not doing any operations there – and then it pushed across the Florida Keys near Marathon, Florida, Big Pine Key. We didn’t get the storm surge that we thought we would see in Hurricane Irma. In fact, when I went down to the Keys and talked to some of the first responders and the residents, they said they were lucky. And they were, because there was a 10- to 12-foot storm surge predicted. And we had over 10,000 residents who decided to ride this one out. If we saw that 10- to 12-foot storm surge, the loss of life could have been significant.
Another concern was that we had moved in a number of shallow water boats for urban search and rescue in Tampa, Florida, which might be one of the most vulnerable cities for storm surge along the Gulf Coast. When Irma’s track moved to the east, it pushed the water out of [Tampa] Bay – instead of flooding the bay. Since they didn’t get that coastal flooding, the residents there felt they were somewhat lucky. Actually, the worst flooding was in Jacksonville, Florida.
We’ve had four hurricanes in a very short time frame. Do you think we could be looking at a “new normal” and does the Coast Guard have to do anything differently in terms of planning or staging assets before and during hurricane season?
I’ve been serving in the Coast Guard for 40 years now. And I’ve been through Hurricane Hugo, and I have been through other hurricanes in the past, and, historically, you might see one of these every two to three years. It’s been five years since Hurricane Sandy, and it’s been even longer yet, at 12 years, since Hurricane Katrina, and now we’ve had three Category 4 or 5 hurricanes devastate the United States in one year. Is this a pattern? We always like to plan for the worst in the Coast Guard and not hope for the best. So even with these hurricanes, we tend to over-respond and bring more resources to bear than what the mission requires. And where do those mission requirements come from? They typically come from the governor of an affected state under the Stafford Act. But we usually increase the requested number of assets because, as we have seen, if you don’t bring in enough resources, you will find yourself ill-equipped to deal with that worst-case scenario. So, we’ll continue to use that approach. But as you heard, we pulled resources from all over the country, flight crews in particular for helicopters and airplanes. We had other meaningful work to do across the country and we do put those areas at risk to attend to the responses that we had to deal with for these three hurricanes.
What I also look at is what else could happen during all of this [hurricane response]? There are wildfires going on in California right now. And just to the north of those wildfire areas, you have what is called the Cascadia subduction zone. That’s a tectonic plate that is under a lot of pressure. Seismologists predict that any day that plate could release and you can have a tsunami make landfall within a matter of 10 to 15 minutes. The impact of that could be quite devastating. So, if I pulled resources out of that part of the country to deal with a hurricane and now I need to reposition those to deal with a no-notice event such as a tsunami, we would be hard pressed to answer all of those calls.
Speaking of calls, sir, does the service have any ideas about how it might accommodate individual distress calls that have come in via social media, whether it is Facebook or Twitter? I think that happened quite a bit after Harvey, and it seems likely we’ll see more of that in the future.
That’s a great question. [When] the 911 call center in greater Houston went down, our people began following social media. We then established a 1-800 number for our Coast Guard Headquarters. So, our command center here was receiving over a thousand calls an hour. We stood up a 65-person call center here manned by Coast Guard personnel at our headquarters. They first take all these calls, triage each one of these based on severity, and dispatch the calls for response.
In Texas, we were using an application called GeoSuite™. When you make a call on your smartphone, it has a GPS chip in it, and we know exactly where the call came from. And then we could color code the severity of that call to dispatch helicopters and boats to the highest-priority locations – all with the necessary precision for a swift rescue. So, using that piece of technology was a huge asset to us.
In fact, one of these played out when we had a national media outlet interviewing a dialysis patient in need of treatment and she couldn’t get through to the 911 call [center]. The call center said, “Try this Coast Guard number.” The patient called and within 10 minutes, we got the information back to the emergency operation center in Houston to dispatch a helicopter. And this patient was airlifted for critical dialysis treatment. I think that’s one example of how we use technology, to include social media, in the middle of a storm. A lot of people are getting their information via Facebook, and so we pushed out a lot of our response activities [on] Facebook as well.
Admiral, those are all my prepared questions. Is there anything you would like to add?
Thank you. As I reflect on hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I noticed that there was substantial intersection from one storm to the next. We already had a lot of our ships, a lot of our planes and people in the region. So, we were able to shift from one event to the next and then to the following one with far greater ease than had they been disparate incidents geographically.
Outside of our response efforts, we live in these communities and have a lot of infrastructure at these locations. The Coast Guard has incurred about a billion dollars of direct and indirect costs. We’re hopeful that we do see the supplemental relief necessary to restore our readiness.
Lastly, as we were doing this [responding to the hurricanes], Coast Guard units were also providing security to the U.N. General Assembly. We were also involved in the largest Arctic search and rescue exercise ever in Iceland and interacting with the other eight Arctic nations. And concurrently we also confiscated about 25 tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific. I like to say the sun never sets on the Coast Guard, so even though it may sound like we were fully consumed with this response, we are deployed worldwide.