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How a Hurricane Could Paralyze the U.S. Government and Jeopardize National Security

Photographic copy of an historic photograph (From the Navy Yard Historical Center). AERIAL VIEW OF THE NAVY YARD DURING THE 1936 FLOOD. VIEW LOOKING NORTHWEST. BUILDING 36, JUST HABS DC,WASH,74-F-35

Aerial view of the Navy Yard during the 1936 flood. Photo by Library of Congress

How a Major Hurricane Could Paralyze the Government and Jeopardize National Security or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Preparedness (cheesy reference to Dr. Strangelove for those who missed it).

Last week, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Justin Nobel wrote a lengthy article that asks a question not many people are asking: What Happens When a Superstorm Hits D.C.?. Center for Climate and Security Advisory Board Member, Brigadier General Gerry Galloway, U.S. Army (retired), one of the nation’s premier experts on flood risks to critical military and civilian infrastructure, was interviewed for the story. From the article:

When the big storm hits D.C., the resulting disaster may not kill as many as Katrina, or flood as much physical real estate as Harvey, but the toll it takes on American institutions will be unfathomable. The storm will paralyze many of the agencies that operate and defend the nation, raising the specter of national-security threats. Imagine, says Gerald Galloway, a disaster and national-security expert at the University of Maryland who served 38 years in the military, “the world waking up some morning to see an aerial photograph of Washington, D.C., with everything from the Lincoln Memorial to the grounds of the Capitol under-water – that certainly does not speak well for the United States’ preparedness.”

As the U.S. emerges from the destruction of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, prescient news articles from before the storms, like the vulnerability of Houston, Texas to flooding, add another element of concern. Storms happen and there is always an element of surprise and uncertainty, but there are also basic preparations that can be put in place well in advance. Making sure these plans reach decision-makers and those who are key to implementing them is also critical. Take the Washington, D.C. levee system for example,

Washington’s defense begins with a little-known levee system. “There probably aren’t 10 people in Washington,” says Galloway, “who even know this levee exists.” The Potomac Park Levee System is operated by the National Park Service and consists of an earthen berm that begins near the Lincoln Memorial and runs along the National Mall, passing just below the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Constitution Gardens to the Washington Monument. At 17th Street, a busy thoroughfare that cuts right through the berm, a 140-foot-wide gap marks the levee system’s greatest point of vulnerability. For the city to be protected, this must be manually patched.

In past floods, the hole in the system was filled with sandbags, a task that took 1,000 man-hours. In 2007, the Army Corps inspected the levee and gave the entire system a failing grade. This led FEMA to de-accredit it, meaning much of downtown D.C. was forced to pay into the National Flood Insurance Program. Three years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled a potential solution: a removable flood wall comprising eight steel posts and 27 aluminum panels that is stored in a maintenance yard a 30-minute drive from 17th Street.

FEMA_Hurricane Isabel_09-19-2003_in_District_of_Columbia

National Park Service employees sandbag cross 17th Street near the Tidal Basin in anticipation of Hurricane Isabel flooding during high tide on the Potomac River. Photo by: Liz Roll/FEMA News Photo

The article goes on to describe the potential limits to executing this strategy. On that point, Rolling Stone’s Justin Nobel also references our 2016 Military Expert Panel Report: Sea Level Rise and the U.S. Military’s Mission:

According to a September 2016 report on sea-level rise by the Center for Climate and Security, a nonpartisan policy institute composed of security and military experts, “The continued strength of the U.S. depends, in large part, on having a clear-eyed assessment of risks and threats to the nation, and addressing them well before they manifest themselves.” Washington, D.C., the capital of what is, for the time being, the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, is patently unprepared for its pending disaster.

In short, there exists an opportunity to be much better prepared for a major hurricane hitting Washington, D.C. It is in the national interest to do so (see in particular the parts of the article that discuss access roads to the Pentagon and flooded basements of government buildings).

We have a Responsibility to Prepare for this scenario. Let’s hope that our decision-makers heed that call.


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