Trump cuts could mean stormy waters for California Coast Guard presence

The Coast Guard Cutter John McCormick (WPC 1121) moors at Coast Guard Sector San Francisco, March 8, 2017.


By CASEY TOLAN | The Contra Costa Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 26, 2017

COAST GUARD ISLAND — In many ways, the Coast Guard’s mission reads like a Donald Trump campaign promise. Its officers don’t just drag drowning surfers out of the water — they intercept thousands of pounds of cocaine shipments before they reach the U.S. and stop migrants and smugglers trying to get into the country by sea.

You could say that the guard is the closest thing America has to a wall for its maritime borders.

But as Congress nears a high-stakes deadline this week, President Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border has complicated a spending bill needed to avoid a government shutdown — and ultimately could shift funding away from one of the Coast Guard’s most strategic stations in the California Bay Area.

From Coast Guard Island, a tiny, man-made spit of land tucked into a bay between Oakland and Alameda, officials monitor America’s Pacific Coast and direct operations across half the world. Even as Army and Navy bases around the Bay Area were shuttered over the past decades, the Coast Guard has grown its presence in the Bay Area, docking some of the most important ships in its fleet here.

The Coast Guard’s mission is “so much more than a wall,” said Capt. Laura Collins, the commander of National Security Cutter Bertholf, one of the ships based here.

“Whether it’s protecting the fish stocks… whether it’s intercepting drugs off the coast of Central America or whether it’s keeping illegal migration out of that domain. All of these missions, we’re doing that.”

The National Security Cutter Douglas Munro — a newly constructed, 418-foot long, 4,500-ton behemoth of gleaming white naval power — sailed into San Francisco Bay for the first time earlier this month. It’s ready to hunt down drug smugglers in international seas, crack down on overfishing in the farthest reaches of Alaskan waters, and catch polluting boats up and down the California coast.

Between Coast Guard Island and facilities on Yerba Buena Island and in Petaluma, the guard employs about 4,000 people in the Bay Area.

That largesse is now in question. A budget proposal from the Office of Management and Budget last month would have cut $1.3 billion from the Coast Guard’s $9.1 billion budget, while allocating $2.9 billion for construction of the Mexican border wall.

The proposed Coast Guard cuts led to bipartisan outrage. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, said in a statement that the proposal was “an insult.”

“It undercuts the service to nearly the point of paralysis,” he said. “America will be put at greater risk from the very organizations and criminal activity that President Trump himself has said must be confronted.” Nearly 60 other members of Congress signed onto Hunter’s letter.

A few days later, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, released a new proposal requesting the Coast Guard budget remain flat from the previous year, even as the budget calls for a $54 billion increase in other military spending.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion among “coasties,” as the guard members call themselves, about how the final budget will shake out.

Stephen Flynn, a professor at Northeastern University who studies homeland security policy, said cutting the Coast Guard while spending billions on a wall made no sense. “If you lock down one part of the system, you push smugglers elsewhere, like into the maritime realm,” he said.

Coast Guard Island is the headquarters of the guard’s Pacific Area, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to Africa, and from the Arctic to the Antarctic, conducting law enforcement missions across the ocean. The island, originally called Government Island, was created after a dredging project in the estuary between Oakland and Alameda. The Guard moved in during the 1920s, and ran its national boot camp there until 1982.

Now, it’s a control center and a support facility for coasties, who get medical and other services here. The island has stocky buildings and wide open views of the Oakland hills. Coasties jog a track around the island’s circumference, while commuters on the Nimitz Freeway and BART hum by.

Even as the Navy pulled out of its massive base on Alameda in the ’90s, the Coast Guard reinvested in the Bay Area, opening the Pacific Area headquarters and anchoring its most important ships here. The crown jewels of the guard’s fleet are its National Security Cutters, huge boats outfitted with advanced equipment, and four out of the six nationwide are based here.

In its most recent outing, the crew of cutter Bertholf intercepted two drug transport boats several hundred miles off the coast of Central America, seizing more than 13 tons of cocaine. They motored across the Pacific to catch the smaller boats in the dead of night. Under cover of darkness, the cutter’s helicopters and attack boats zoomed in to intercept the traffickers by surprise, Collins said.

As the sun rose over the open ocean, the cutter’s crew, from cooks to officers, helped carry the heavy bags of confiscated cocaine onboard. “The whole ship’s up, they’re all moving drug bales and high-fiving,” Collins said. “It’s a pretty good feeling.”

The cocaine that’s captured here, usually on its way to the U.S., is nearly pure, “right out of the jungle,” said Capt. Nate Moore, who commands the cutter Stratton. It would equal seven or eight times its weight if it reached American shores and was cut for distribution.

The cutters are part of a decade-long program to modernize the Coast Guard’s aging fleet. The effort faced cost overruns, delays and quality issues in the mid-2000s, with some new ships needing repairs and launching years late. But new ship construction has been moving swiftly in recent years, with three new National Security Cutters being commissioned in the last three years.

The Alameda base is also home to an anti-terrorism team, including two explosives detection dogs who are trained to drop from helicopters on a hoist — a rare feat for law enforcement canines. The dogs, who wear reflective goggles, have a loyal following on Facebook.

Local guard members are also responsible for more conventional search-and-rescue operations — last year, they conducted 944 from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo.

Around the clock, they listen for radio distress signals at the local command center on Yerba Buena Island, a windowless room full of radar maps and live video streams of the bay. When a major distress call comes in, “it actually gets really calm in here,” said Robert Egbert, the chief operations specialist at the command center. They pull out a whiteboard and plan out a rescue. “After it’s over, there’s a deep sigh,” he said.

Earlier this month, the guard helped coordinate the response to a sunken freight barge south of the Bay Bridge, plugging it to prevent it leaking oil, and also rescued several downed kiteboarders.

But the most exciting times on Coast Guard Island are when the cutters return home after several months at sea. The crew’s family members crowd the dock, hoisting welcome home signs and cheering.

“The families just storm the bow,” said Matt Waldron, the executive officer of the cutter Stratton. “There’s no holding them back.”

©2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
Visit the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.eastbaytimes.com
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