Heroic. That’s the word for the Coast Guard’s response when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. It got to the scene fast — four hours before Army National Guard units arrived — and began rescue operations immediately.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard rescued more than 33,000 people. Along the way, it provided food, water, shelter and medical supplies to survivors. It also managed the response to environmental threats, including oil spills.
Perhaps most importantly, the Coast Guard provided able leadership. After the initial inept federal response, President George W. Bush turned to Adm. Thad Allen and made him the principal official for organizing relief operations.
The Coast Guard’s performance was truly amazing, considering that it had to carry out the mission with such poor assets. Planes and ships were aged and wearing out. Some cutters were old enough to collect Social Security.
Katrina was five years ago. Today, America faces another Gulf Coast disaster: A massive oil spill from a well at an offshore platform.
Once again, the American president has sent in the Coast Guard. And once again, he has appointed Allen as lead federal official.
History is repeating in another way too. The Coast Guard remains about as ill-equipped as it was in 2005.
And while modernization has proceeded at a glacial pace, the Coast Guard has been wearing out its assets faster than ever. Since 9/11, the service has been busier than ever, with new responsibilities for port security, inland and border water patrol, and battling transnational smuggling.
Even before the well blew, the service was showing signs of excess stress. Recently, Allen reported, "Of the 12 major cutters assigned to Haiti relief operations, 10, or 83 percent, suffered severe mission-affecting casualties. Two were forced to return to port for emergency repairs, and one proceeded to an emergency dry dock."
Yet rather than rebuild the Coast Guard, Congress and the president are cutting back. They’re even scaling back on assets needed to deal with catastrophic disasters.
Overall, President Barack Obama has told the Coast Guard to shed nearly 1,000 personnel, five cutters, and several helicopters and aircraft.
To preserve at least some money for fleet modernization, Allen will have no choice but to reduce current readiness. Forcing commanders to make such trade-offs is a prescription for national security disaster.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).