In the aftermath of devastation caused by Winter Storm Uri in February and other natural disasters, the armed services’ installation chiefs outlined for lawmakers their plans to ensure that bases would be made more resilient.
Testifying March 26 before the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, each of the four – Army Lt. Gen. Douglas M. Gabram, Navy Vice Adm. Yancy B. Lindsey, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Edward D. Banta and Air Force Brig. Gen. John J. Allen – acknowledged that aging infrastructure in some cases made a difficult situation worse. Nevertheless, they each said that military bases largely fared better than local civilian communities.
The four commanders collectively described how respective natural events significantly taxed water and power systems as well as physical structures themselves.
Gabram described how Winter Storm Uri damaged some 483 barracks and 1,366 private homes at Forts Sill and Hood in Texas, Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Polk, Louisiana. Fortunately, he said, only 145 families were temporarily displaced. As of the hearing, 31 families remained out of housing that was still undergoing repairs.
“The Army continues to surge repair efforts to these four installations,” Gabram said. “To date, we have repaired all critical infrastructure and have completed more than 50 percent of the total repairs required.”
Uri, several hurricanes and a 2019 earthquake in California have spurred the Navy to continue resiliency-improvement planning at 17 installations deemed “high risk,” Lindsey told the panel.
“When we assess the damage caused by these extreme events, it is starkly clear: Modern facilities improve survivability as opposed to older facilities built to now-outdated codes and criteria,” Lindsey said.
Efforts continue to improve earthquake survivability at Naval Weapons Station China Lake, California, which sustained earthquake damage, Lindsey said. Likewise, infrastructure improvements at large waterside installations in Hampton Roads, Virginia, San Diego and elsewhere are focused upon mitigating possible damage caused by frequent flooding, coastal storms and erosion, he said.
“The Navy’s mission requires that the majority of our installations be located in coastal areas. So we are mindful of the risks posed by sea level rise and storm surge, especially in areas that are prone to hurricanes and typhoons,” Lindsey said.
Like the Navy, Banta told the panel, the vast majority of the Marine Corps’ 25 installations are situated on the coasts.
“Their long-term viability hinges upon robust protection of their shoreline as well as from other extreme environmental events,” Banta said. “The significant backlog in maintenance and aging footprint is an example of where our trajectory of the last few decades must be altered.”
Banta cited the lessons gleaned from Hurricane Florence in 2018, which inflicted significant damage to the service’s installations as it pounded the North Carolina coast. Damaged facilities were rebuilt outside of the floodplain to higher standards, he said. Installations in the western states are undergoing renovations that would better protect them from droughts, wildfires and earthquakes. Pacific installations are being equipped to better mitigate damage caused by earthquakes, flooding and typhoons, he said.
“We understand the criticality of improving the resiliency of our installations’ critical functions, such as the power grid, water distribution, and communications capabilities, as we develop installation master plans ensuring we prepare for severe weather and climate change,” Banta said. “Ultimately, our objective is to incorporate climate change impacts, severe weather, and lessons learned into every aspect of our institutional planning process.”
Besides damage to bases in the South and Midwest inflicted by this past winter’s vicious storms, the Air Force is still rebuilding facilities at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, which was hit by Hurricane Michael in 2018, and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, which was inundated with heavy flood waters the next year.
“We must continually learn from these events and adapt to meet our current and future threats to our installations posed by severe weather and climate, as well as physical or cyber-attacks,” Allen told the panel.
The Air Force is sharing the $26 million reconstruction costs at Tyndall with governmental and academic partners, Allen said, with an eye toward incorporating “environmentally conscious improvements” that would account for potential damage caused by water and wind. Offutt is undergoing a $35-million project that will raise levees two to three feet higher than they are presently, and widen their bases as well.
The four panelists agreed that continued efforts to harden their facilities against natural disasters would hinge upon continued funding and support from Congress.