From hurricanes to fires, 2017 disasters tested DoD amid concern that forces are stretched thin

Key Points
  • Some 67,000 military personnel helped during three major hurricanes this year.
  • The military's hurricane relief efforts strained some other operations planned by the Pentagon.
  • For this month's California wildfires, Marines conducted aerial water drops; Navy helicopters also assisted.
Army Capt. Benjamin Stork, a flight surgeon, cares for a patient on an HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter headed to the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship off the coast of Puerto Rico, Oct. 20, 2017, following Hurricane Maria.
Capt. Tyson Friar | U.S. Army

When major disaster relief orders come down from the White House, the Department of Defense plays a key role because of its vast response capabilities, say experts.

But the reliance on military resources often is more expensive in disasters than using civilian contractors. And, the use of the federal military also can put a strain on the Pentagon's other plans, as was the case after the Trump administration put more resources toward Hurricane Maria recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.

"When the president wants things done, people point to the DoD," said Todd Rosenblum, a former senior official at the Pentagon and now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. "The military is in many ways the operational backbone of the federal assistance."

The more than $200 billion in devastation from hurricanes and California wildfires this year was a clear message that domestic disasters can take a heavy economic toll and require a combination of civil-military expertise.

Rosenblum said the federal military "has all the capacity and can go faster than anyone." He was quick to add that National Guard units around the country also are capable of handling emergency relief in disasters, though for large-scale events states often turn to the Pentagon for help.

Overall, some 67,000 DoD and National Guard personnel responded to help civil authorities during the three hurricanes that made landfall this year, according to Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Strain on military

However, the Pentagon said in October the storm-relief efforts were putting a strain on some of its other plans, such as sending additional troops to Afghanistan. Also, some have complained the U.S. military has a readiness problem and is stretched too thin already.

Rosenblum disputes talk that the U.S. military lacks sufficient resources to handle both wartime and other demands, including the ability to deploy military cargo jets and Navy resources for extended periods of time for disaster relief efforts.

"DoD has this tremendous capacity and wasn't stretched thin," Rosenblum maintains. He said the Pentagon — the nation's largest employer — has no shortage when it comes to its vast fleet of cargo planes, command and control capabilities, and tapping into its workforce with engineering, communications, logistics and contracting expertise.

During the hurricane season, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were all impacted by major storms. Harvey killed 82 people, Irma resulted in the loss of 134 lives and at least 66 direct fatalities were blamed on Maria.

Preliminary damage estimates for both Harvey in August and Irma in September range between $150 billion and $200 billion, according to Moody's Analytics. Puerto Rico's governor has estimated rebuilding after catastrophic damage from Maria in September will cost nearly $100 billion.

Hurricane response

Tens of thousands of National Guardsmen, reservists and active-duty federal military personnel responded to the storms, providing search and rescue recovery assistance in the affected areas. Also, the military helped clear thousands of miles of roads, opened damaged ports and delivered emergency supplies and equipment.

Army Brig. Gen. Patrick M. Hamilton, commander of the Texas National Guard's Domestic Operations Task Force, recalls that the day before Harvey hit, weather forecasters were still saying it would just be a tropical storm at most. He said the forecast was upgraded to a strong Category 4 so the number of military personnel assigned went up sharply. Record amounts of rain and flooding in Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, eventually resulted in some 18,000 troops supporting the rescue and relief efforts.

"We had helicopters and trucks and Marine Corps amphibious vehicles from all components — active duty, National Guard, Reserves of each of the branches — on the ground working in unison to support the local responders and the local communities," said Hamilton, who served as the dual status commander overseeing active and Guard military personnel supporting Harvey relief efforts in Texas.

In Puerto Rico, Maria made landfall on the island Sept. 20, and the military's extended-response role continues to this day, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helping with infrastructure repairs, including restoring power to the U.S. territory.

Puerto Rico had no major airfields available immediately after the storm struck, so that meant the military couldn't use all of its large cargo planes right away to bring in hurricane-relief supplies. Once the airfields in Puerto Rico reopened, though, large amounts of food, water and other vital supplies starting flowing to the island.

Another major role initially for the military was search-and-rescue operations on the island of about 3.4 million Americans, as well as clearing the seaports and opening roads scattered with debris.

Hospitals also were a problem after the storm struck since many lacked power or were damaged and struggled to provide care to residents. As a result, the Navy's Comfort hospital ship arrived in early October and ended up treating nearly 2,000 patients and providing surgeries, food and water.

Political fighting

Yet the post-Maria relief efforts haven't been without controversy, and some charge the Trump administration was slow in its response to the crisis. Also, some say local officials didn't help by getting into political fights with Washington.

"One of the things that happened during Katrina also happened in Puerto Rico, and [that] was sniping by officials," said Rosenblum.

After Maria struck, the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital city held a press conference and accused the Trump administration of mishandling Puerto Rico relief efforts. "We are dying here," said Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan. "I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles long."

In response, President Donald Trump tweeted back, "Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help."

At the time, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders responded to Puerto Rico criticism by saying: "The federal response has been anything but slow."

Puerto Rico's electrical power grid suffered extensive damage in the Category 5 hurricane and remains one of the pressing needs even today. About one-third of Puerto Rico still lacks electrical service three months after Maria hit.

Military's wildfire role

In California, the federal military played a lesser role in this year's wildfire disasters. But the Army Corps helped in the emergency response after major damage was found at Oroville Dam, the nation's tallest earthen dam, following heavy winter rains. The Army Corps also helped in debris removal after Northern California's deadly wine country fires in October.

A California Air National Guard C-130J Hercules drops fire retardant over the hills above Santa Barbara, Calif., Dec. 13, 2017, while helping fight the Thomas Fire.
Staff Sgt. Nieko Carzis | California Air National Guard

Davis, the Pentagon spokesman, said the "DoD received no formal requests" to help in this month's wildfires in Southern California, although Navy and Marine Corps units from Ventura to San Diego provided assistance to Cal Fire under "pre-established local agreements."

Marine Corps Camp Pendleton executed more than a dozen air drops of water during this month's Lilac fire in San Diego County, while two Navy helicopters also assisted in the firefighting effort. In Ventura County, the local Navy base deployed several firefighting vehicles and crew to assist in the massive Thomas fire, and some of those resources remained active on the fire lines this week, according to a base spokesperson.

At the same time, thousands of California Army and Air National Guard personnel were mobilized to help with three major wildfire efforts this year and to support civilian firefighting agencies. They included the October wine country fires that resulted in 44 fatalities and destruction of or damage to more than 21,000 homes as well as summer fires in Central California and this month's Southern California blazes, such as the Thomas fire.

The Thomas fire — the second-largest wildfire in California history — has charred an area over 425 square miles, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and still threatens about 18,000 structures. The blaze in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was 65 percent contained as of Thursday evening, according to Cal Fire.

"2017 was an especially busy year for the Cal Guard, as we not only deployed thousands of troops overseas, but several thousand here at home, as well," said Capt. Will Martin, spokesman for the California National Guard. "We've dropped several million gallons of water and retardant on the fires this year, in addition to responding to floods in Northern California and hurricanes in Texas and beyond."

Martin said the Guard also mobilized Reaper drones during the wildfires to gather and relay real-time imagery to civilian incident commanders on the ground to help them more effectively combat the fires and do so as safely as possible. Other aerial assets used included various helicopters, from Black Hawks to Chinooks, along with two C-130J Super Hercules air tankers outfitted with fire retardant-dropping equipment.