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A Sea Hawk helicopter on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln prepares to take off en route to Naval Station Norfolk on Sept. 15, 2018. Helicopters were recalled to Norfolk to be in position to provide support if needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Sherman/U.S. Navy via AP

USA - Not a drill: Navy struggles to complete adaptation mission

The U.S. Navy is at war against a surging sea. It has yet to notch a victory.

Despite tens of millions of dollars spent on studies, risk assessments and guidance documents dating to the 1990s, the most climate-fraught U.S. defense agency hasn’t completed a single large-scale resilience project across more than 40 domestic installations.

Only one major initiative, a $21 billion program to raise dry docks and modernize the Navy’s four primary shipyards, has turned dirt. Many other Navy installations — from Key West, Fla., to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — have yet to complete base-wide resilience plans, even though such plans are required by Congress.

“I would say that the vulnerability to [climate change] impacts are growing at a rate that exceeds our current speed and ability to deal with them,” retired Rear Adm. Ann C. Phillips, who served on the chief of naval operations’ Climate Change Task Force from 2009 to 2012, said in a recent interview. “But that’s true for all of the armed forces, not just the Navy.”

Last week, the Department of Defense released a climate adaptation plan to comply with President Biden’s January executive order requiring all foreign policy and national security agencies to prioritize climate change in decisionmaking and planning. The 28-page document has been characterized as more focused than a previous effort by the Obama administration in 2014.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin noted in the plan’s forward that "climate change is a destabilizing force, demanding new missions of us and altering the operational environment," adding that "climate-related extreme weather affects military readiness and drains our resources."

While all the major military service branches — Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — face worsening climate extremes at home and abroad, the Navy stands out by virtue of its sea-facing posture. Protecting sailors, ships, aircraft, ports and other critical infrastructure — some of it centuries old — will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 30 to 50 years, experts say.

Yet many Navy installations have taken only modest steps to prepare for those impacts.

“You need to be able to go into each separate location and assess the vulnerability of different missions, of buildings, of construction projects … of civilian infrastructure, electric power and water systems that can be on-base or off-base,” said John Conger, director emeritus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security and a former assistant Defense secretary for energy installations and environment.

“Every base has to do this, and they have not,” he added.

At Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam — one of the most strategically important defense installations in the world — crews pile sandbags to protect against storm surges and king tide flooding and pore over maps to identify evacuation zones in the event of a major flood.

“We also have placed some erosion control measures along our vast shoreline that may become less effective if the water rises significantly, so repair activities consider improvements as needed,” the base’s public works officer, Capt. Randall E. Harmeyer, wrote in an email response to E&E News questions about climate change readiness.

In northwest Florida, Naval Air Station Pensacola’s primary defense against storm surge is a century-old seawall along Pensacola Bay. Hurricane Sally damaged the wall last year, but a base spokesman said it was being repaired. The Navy is also working with the city of Pensacola and Escambia County on a “living shoreline project” to mitigate coastal erosion and slow storm surges with rock and oyster-shell breakwaters along 3 miles of the base’s waterfront.

“Our current concern is risk associated with the damaged seawall and risks due to the effects of hurricanes,” base spokesman Jason Bortz wrote in an email. He added that NAS Pensacola works with the Southeast regional Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) “to be proactive in identifying risk and mitigate risk at each of the installations.”

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