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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

After Billions Of Dollars In Damage, The Military Is Trying To Protect Bases From Climate Change

Hurricanes caused catastrophic damage to East Coast military bases in 2018. Now, as it starts to rebuild, the Pentagon wants to make bases less vulnerable to future storms.

Jay Price reports that the military is working to make bases more resilient to climate change.

On a recent day at Camp Lejeune, N.C., officials gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony in front of a single-story, brick regimental headquarters that's scheduled to be torn down and replaced.

The occasion marked the start a massive construction project - dozens of new buildings will replace some of those most badly damaged by Hurricane Florence more than two years ago.

It also marked a big moment for national security, because Lejeune is the main east coast infantry base for the Marines. The Corps also relies heavily on two nearby Marine air stations that also had heavy storm damage.

The reconstruction effort is so large and important that the Navy set up an entire new Facilities Command to run it under a senior officer, Captain Jim Brown.

He acted as the emcee for the groundbreaking.

"We will restore this base," he told the small crowd. "We will get it back, and we'll make it better than it was before."

Navy and Marine officers say Congress pushed through construction funding with unusual speed, and every effort was made to accelerate planning. The result is that construction is starting twice as soon as typical military projects. But it will still take at least another five years to complete the work.

The hurricane was unusual in that it not only was powerful, but it moved slowly and carried an extraordinary amount of water. Its high winds damaged the roofs of hundreds of buildings.

Then the storm sat over them for three days, dumping an all-time record of three feet of rainfall. Water poured into ceilings and inside walls and flooded interiors.

"Hurricane Florence, I like to say, exposed the soft underbelly of our infrastructure here," said Navy Captain Miguel Dieguez, Camp Lejeune's facilities director.

Buildings constructed in recent years with metal roofs suffered little to no damage. But older buildings, including many key headquarters, were hit hard.

"The oldest and kind of most vulnerable part of our infrastructure that dates back to the 40s and 50s was really susceptible to the winds and the rain that happened," said Dieguez.

The startling amount of damage at the Marine bases - and billions of dollars in other damage at Tyndall Air Force base in Florida the same year in Hurricane Michael - led the Pentagon to retool its construction standards to better take into account the increasing risks from climate change.

Dieguez said the new structures on the Marine bases will be built to better withstand storms.

The former headquarters of the 10th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune served as a backdrop for the ceremonial groundbreaking. It is scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a new building on higher ground.
Credit Brian Lautenslager / U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marine Corps
The former headquarters of the 10th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune served as a backdrop for the ceremonial groundbreaking. It is scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a new building on higher ground.

"We're just going to be first out of the chute to incorporate these changes on a large scale," he said. "I think other installations and other services will come and look to see what we're doing here and mirror, not just from an infrastructure perspective, but we talk about energy security and the upgrades we're making to utilities infrastructure to make it more resilient.

The headquarters for the main East Coast Marine infantry units, which is on the waterfront, will be relocated to one of the highest points on the base.

Shana Udvardy of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that's good news.

"Just hardening a piece of infrastructure won't be enough," she said. "We can't really wall off water. So it is refreshing to hear that Camp Lejuene is looking at moving some structures inland."

Udvardy co-authored a report in 2016 underlining the threats climate change, especially sea level rise, poses to several bases, including Lejeune.

She said the military had obviously recognized for some time that climate change posed great threats, but that it it was especially heartening when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently called climate change an " existential" threat to U.S. national security, signaling a new level of attention to climate issues in the Pentagon.

But the big thing, she said, is reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that the cause climate change.

Experts have long warned that many coastal military bases are vulnerable to the sea level rise and increasingly numerous and more powerful storms triggered by climate change.

A Center for Climate and Security report issued just months before the storm hit Lejeune had highlighted risks there. Among other things, it recommended significant upgrades to the base's utilities to make them less vulnerable to storms and flooding.

Dieguez said those are also among the improvements now planned.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.