Hurricane Idalia made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 30 and tore through northern Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. As the storm intensified earlier that week, military bases across the Southeast were scrambling to make final preparations, including evacuating personnel and moving or securing ships, aircraft and other assets. In this case, the bases escaped major damage, but the situation was quite different just a few years earlier.
In 2018, Tyndall Air Force Base outside Panama City, Fla, sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. Military units were prevented from training and almost $5 billion in necessary repairs are still ongoing. In addition to hurricanes, wildfires have forced evacuations at bases in the western U.S. and flooding in the Midwest damaged facilities home to key warfighting capabilities.
Increasingly intense and expensive natural disasters have prompted states and the federal government to better catalogue vulnerabilities and to develop innovative mechanisms to address disaster prevention and mitigation, while creating resiliency through both natural and built infrastructure. The Department of Defense (DOD) increasingly partners with states and local governments in managing the impacts of disasters. Background on DOD’s approach and partnerships with states are highlighted below.
DOD Approach to Climate Adaptation
The DOD identified climate change as a critical national security issue and is integrating climate considerations into policies, strategies and partner engagements. Desertification, drought, coastal and riverine flooding, thawing permafrost and wildfires already cost the department billions of dollars and are degrading mission capabilities, compromising training lands, infrastructure and public safety.
The DOD examined climate vulnerabilities in 2019 at numerous military installations across the country. Of the 79 sites surveyed, over two-thirds were deemed vulnerable to future recurrent flood and more than half to future droughts and wildfires. These extreme weather events cause damage to defense facilities that undermine their operational capacity. From 2017-2021, more than 10 DOD bases were impacted by natural disasters and extreme weather events resulting in over $13 billion in damages.
The 2021 DOD Climate Adaptation Plan serves to “ensure that the DOD can operate under changing climate conditions, preserving operational capability and enhancing and protecting the natural and man-made systems essential to the department’s success” to help ensure national security. The plan contains five major lines of effort, each with an intended strategic outcome: (1) climate-informed decision-making; (2) train and equip a climate-ready force; (3) resilient built and natural infrastructure; (4) supply chain resilience and innovation; and (5) enhance adaptation and resilience through collaboration.
Federal Partners in Disaster Resilience
The DOD’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program preserves military missions by supporting cost-sharing agreements between the military services, other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private conservation organizations to avoid land use conflicts near military installations, address environmental restrictions that limit military activities, and increase climate resilience. From FY 2003 through FY 2022, the REPI program has secured $1.24 billion to protect roughly 1.18 million acres of land at 120 locations across 35 states and territories to preserve key operational assets, infrastructure and capabilities. With expanded authority from Congress, REPI is also funding off-base nature-based solutions, such as wildfire risk mitigation and living shoreline construction. The recipient of REPI funds can use such funds as the match or cost-sharing requirement for any conservation or resilience program of any federal agency.
Another DOD office addressing encroachment pressures is the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation (OLDCC), formerly Office of Economic Adjustment. Since 1961, OLDCC has helped communities in all 50 states and several U.S. territories develop comprehensive strategies to adjust to defense industry cutbacks, base closures, force structure realignments, base expansion and incompatibilities between military operations and local development.
An example of this working partnership is the Installation Resilience program, which provides technical and financial assistance to states and local governments to study and recommend land use policies designed to balance community and military needs. More recently, the program expanded technical assistance to include Military Installation Resilience Reviews, encompassing the previous Compatible Use/Joint Land Use Study program as well as the recently authorized Installation Resilience Authority. These plans only require around a 10% non-federal cost share and are often the first step in establishing a REPI project.
Finally, the DOD has also been working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, various state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations since 2013 through the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership. The partnership aims to advance mutually beneficial land use objectives in designated project areas known as sentinel landscapes. The partnership accomplishes this mission by connecting private landowners in sentinel landscapes with government assistance that offset the cost of implementing sustainable management practices or conservation projects on their properties. Through FY 2021, projects across sentinel landscapes have attracted roughly $307 million in Agriculture department funds, $197 million in Defense department funds, $70 million in Interior department funds, $324 million in state funds, $21 million in local funds, and $135 million in private funds. These contributions have permanently protected nearly 610,000 acres of land and enrolled over 3.1 million acres of land in financial and technical assistance programs.
Located in the Sonoran Desert, Fort Huachuca is home to premier restricted military airspace for unmanned aircraft system training, as well as the Buffalo Soldier Electronic Test Range and electromagnetic complex, supporting training for personnel across the services. An increase in urban sprawl, electronic interference, dangerous wildfires, and drought has stressed the installation’s water supply and overall mission. In response, the Arizona Land and Water Trust received $1.3 million in 2023 REPI Challenge funding to protect 7,300 acres of land, thereby supporting ecological and water supply resilience for the installation and surrounding area. Fort Huachuca is also working with partners across the Fort Huachuca Sentinel Landscape on wildfire mitigation. The installation received funding through the U.S. Forest Service to complete tree thinning in neighboring forests and reduce the risk of wildfires reaching the installation and neighboring communities.