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Floods show national security threat posed by climate change

This March 17, 2019 photo released by the U.S. Air Force shows an aerial view of Offutt Air Force Base and the surrounding areas affected by flood waters in Neb. Surging unexpectedly strong and up to 7 feet high, the Missouri River floodwaters that poured on to much the Nebraska air base that houses the U.S. Strategic Command overwhelmed the frantic sandbagging by troops and their scramble to save sensitive equipment, munitions and aircraft. (Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake/The U.S. Air Force via AP)

Offutt Air Force Base and surrounding areas in Nebraska are inundated by flood waters on March 17. Surging unexpectedly up to 7 feet, the Missouri River floodwaters that poured on to much of the Nebraska air base, which houses the U.S. Strategic Command, have undermined frantic sandbagging by troops who have been scrambling to save fragile equipment, munitions and aircraft. (Tech. Sgt. Rachelle Blake/The U.S. Air Force via AP)


OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AP) — Despite round-the–clock sandbagging by airmen and others, the Missouri River floodwaters surging on to the air base that houses the U.S. military’s Strategic Command in Nebraska were just too much. Delicate equipment, munitions and dozens of aircraft were all still at risk.

Days into the flooding, muddy water was lapping at almost 80 flooded buildings at Nebraska’s Offutt Air Force Base, some inundated by up to 7 feet of water. Piles of waterlogged corn cobs, husks and stalks lay heaped everywhere, swept onto the base from surrounding fields.

“In the end, obviously, the waters were just too much. It took over everything we put up,” Col. David Norton, who is in charge of facilities at the base, told an Associated Press reporter on a tour of the damage. “The speed at which it came in was shocking.”

Although the headquarters of Strategic Command, which plays a central role in detecting global threats, wasn’t damaged, the flooding showed that climate change might be more than just a cause for concern for environmentalists, that it might be posing a national security threat.

It was also a reminder that the kind of weather extremes brought about by climate change aren’t found only on the coasts, said retired Rear Adm. David W. Titley, founder of both the Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change and the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University. In recent weeks, Wisconsin and other Midwest states have seen roads and highways closed and buildings swamped amid a combination of early spring rain and melting snow.

In a reference to President Donald Trump’s proposal to take money from the country’s military construction budget to pay for his proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Titley said levees “are the kinds of walls we need.”

The late-winter floods that have swept over Plains states starting last week — breaching levees, halting Amtrak trains, and killing at least three people — are also the second inundation in less than a decade to hit the air base outside Omaha.

It would takes weeks or more for scientists to learn if the Plains flooding, or any similar disaster, was caused or worsened by climate change, which is occurring as emissions from coal, oil and gas alter the atmosphere. But federal agencies and scientists around the world agree that climate change already is making natural disasters more frequent, stronger and longer.

The military has warned in a series of reports under past administrations that climate change is a security threat on many fronts. The danger comes “through direct impacts on U.S. military infrastructure and by affecting factors, including food and water availability, that can exacerbate conflict outside U.S. borders,” the federal government’s grim climate report said last year.

But under the Trump administration, unlike in previous administrations, the Pentagon has offered little public comment on climate change as a security threat. The Pentagon’s guiding star of defense planning, known as the National Defense Strategy, makes not even a mention of climate change.

That leaves it to former military leaders to raise the alarm about how climate change could affect national security. Retired Brig. Gen. Gerald Galloway said that worsening bouts of weather — floods cutting off troops’ way in and out of bases, high waves complicating landings, heat waves depriving aircraft of the lift they need to fly — are all hardships the military could be soon struggling with.

Military bases are often launch platforms and you “can’t fight a war unless you’ve got a place to leave from,” said Galloway, a member of the Center for Climate and Security’s advisory board.

Titley predicted Offutt Air Force Base would prove to be the latest military installation to have racked up $1 billion or more worth of damage. Hurricanes struck North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune in September and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in October.

The current political atmosphere discourages any big attempt to build up bases’ defenses against climate change, said Titley, who also served as chief operating officer of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Defense Department officials “by and large know what they need to do, but it’s very hard for them to do. White House dynamics are the White House does not want to hear about it,” he said.

“The Pentagon is really between a rock and a hard spot here,” Titley said.

Earlier heavy flooding at Offutt prompted the base to start raising its levee by 2 feet this year, said Maj. Meghan M. Liemburg-Archer, spokeswoman for Strategic Command.

In 2011, sandbagging had held back floodwaters that had threatened to inundate the base. This year was far worse, though, said Norton, support group commander at the base.

“It was all hands on deck,” Norton said. “All through the night, we worked. It was thousands of people, in total, working to sandbag, move in huge Hesco barriers; a whole host of people clearing equipment out of facilities, moving munitions … even crews doing things like disconnecting power. It was a massive effort.”

More than 30 aircraft were towed to higher ground or flown to other locations. Crews hauled out loads of equipment, engines and tools.

By Saturday, the flood had rolled over a third of the base, swamping more than 1.2 million square feet of buildings.

Although Strategic Command headquarters escaped flooding, it had to make do with fewer staff employees than usual as high water blocked roads. Among the inundated buildings was the 55th Wing headquarters, the massive Bennie L. Davis Maintenance Facility and a building that houses the 55th Wing’s flight simulators.

About 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway is now submerged.

“The good news is that no one on the base was injured,” Norton said. “We know how lucky we are.”

Touring Offutt, Dave Eblin, fire chief at the base, kicked one of the soggy corn cobs strewn on the ground. Asked whether there had been some type of fodder silo that ruptured nearby, Eblin just laughed.

“No, it came in from the fields. Miles of corn fields around the base,” he said, nudging at the cob underfoot. “It clogs everything: engines, boat motors. It’s everywhere.”

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