The US Navy is the World’s Premiere Disaster Response Organization

Whenever a disaster happens somewhere, the US Navy is frequently a first-responder.  Recent deployments include  the 2010 Haitian earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, and the September 2010 flooding in Pakistan. As I revise this page, the US Navy is preparing to help respond to the March 2011 Japanese megaquake.

The military is frequently the first responder to a disaster because they have the equipment, manpower, and resources to respond to anything that happens anywhere in the world.

The US Navy currently has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, at least 10 smaller amphibious assault ships, and support vessels of all types.

One of these 11 active carriers is the USS Enterprise. This ship was the US Navy’s very first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. 24 months and $662 million were just spent to maintain and renovate the ship. Now it’s basically as-good-as-new.

The Navy is planning to send the Enterprise on two 6-month cruises before throwing it away. They’ll have to cut it up to extract the nuclear reactors, so there’s no prospect for turning it into a museum. The Enterprise’s replacement, the USS Gerald R. Ford, is specifically designed to reduce operating costs. The Enterprise is just too expensive for the Navy to keep as an active warship.

Instead of throwing away a perfectly functional ship, we propose that the Enterprise be dedicated to disaster response.

Disasters happen all the time. Sometimes these take the form of severe weather – hurricanes and tornadoes, blizzards and flooding. Other types of natural disasters include earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Whenever part of the planet is affected, humans organize to help our neighbors survive and recover.

But pulling together a relief effort can be problematic. Sometimes we humans are able to respond quickly. Chileans handled the aftermath of their 2010 magnitude 8.8 earthquake very well. Responding to other crises is more of a challenge. Haitians had real problems responding to their Jan. 12, 2010, magnitude 7.0 quake:

Nineteen days [after the earthquake], only 32 percent of Haitians in need had received any food (even if just a single meal), three-quarters were without clean water, the government had received only two percent of the tents it had requested and hospitals in the capital reported they were running “dangerously low” on basic medical supplies like antibiotics and painkillers. On Feb. 9, the Washington Post reported that food aid was little more than rice, and “Every day, tens of thousands of Haitians face a grueling quest to find food, any food. A nutritious diet is out of the question.” (src)

One of the differences in our ability to respond to a disaster lies in the development level of a country – Chile is politically stable, while Haiti has been a political basket case for the last few decades. But sometimes developed nations also respond poorly when the unexpected happens.

Environmental Catastrophy Causes Mass Confusion

When BP’s Macondo well was flowing freely, company and government officials didn’t know what to do. People everywhere were running around in a state of confusion. The oil gushed for months, and there was no strategy to contain or mitigate the effects of the oil on the environment. Neither BP nor anyone else was prepared for the magnitude of the gusher. One of the few tools available was spraying chemical dispersants to keep the oil from floating in slicks on the surface, but these chemicals were quite toxic as well.

Crude oil slowly seeps into the Gulf of Mexico at a thousand different locations every day. Bacteria consumes the oil when it reaches the water, which prevents seeped oil from ever reaching shore. I thought, “if there are bacteria in the gulf that eat crude oil, and those bacteria need oxygen to consume the oil, wouldn’t adding oxygen to the water help the gulf clean itself?”

I typed up a brief proposal with supporting links, gave it a catchy title, and put it up on a few sites. Feedback was generally positive. To give a short summary, To Save the Gulf, Send the Enterprise advocated using the USS Enterprise’s nuclear reactors to power air compressors for oxygenating the ocean. These air bubblers would have provided oxygen for the oil-eating bacteria, thereby mitigating the damage done by BP’s blowout.

One of the readers suggested that perhaps pumping air down to the depths of the ocean wouldn’t work like I thought it would, and that a better strategy would be to oxygenate the water and pump warm oxygen-rich water to the plumes of oil instead.

USS Enterprise at sea

While I got a few thousand people to look at my idea, thousands of competing ideas were being floated at the same time. Furthermore, the USS Enterprise was recently renovated, is currently getting ready for its next 6-month cruise, and the Navy is not likely to give up their fastest supercarrier 3 years early.

The proposal also suggested tooling up a factory for the new super-efficient Mighty Pump. How many months would it have taken to get the Enterprise (or any other ship) fully outfitted and ready to respond? A lot of custom fabrication work would have been required.

Now that BP’s well has been capped, the need to use Naval resources for the cleanup of the Gulf of Mexico has diminished. But there’s always a next time, a new disaster that needs to be responded to.

The U.S. Coast Guard managed the response to the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. While the Coast Guard is very good at what they do (witness their strong, capable response to the aftermath of  Hurricane Katrina), the scale of the disaster was more than they could handle. The Coast Guard’s boats, airplanes, and other resources were used, but for the most part they supervised BP’s response.

Some people asked where the U.S. Navy was. While the Navy did send a couple pieces of equipment, the Coast Guard was in charge of the operation.

The Navy has a huge workforce (3.00 / 2) (#7)
And boats, and loads of equipment of all kinds. The military is, in general, experts at getting in place ad hoc infrastructure, which often includes containing various problematic elements like oil spills. It’s the only place to go if you need lots of manpower on short notice, and they have some expertise even though they’re not experts on oil spills per se.

Because of the availability of labor and equipment, the military is the primary first responder in most countries’ disasters. While the Posse Comitatus Act prevents the US Armed Forces from participating in domestic law enforcement activities, the National Guard is frequently ordered to assist in disaster response by the affected state’s governor.

The USS Carl Vinson was diverted to Haiti in response to the January earthquake, where it desalinated water and otherwise assisted in relief efforts:

USS CARL VINSON, At Sea (NNS) — The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) departed the waters near Port-au-Prince, Haiti Feb. 1 after rendering humanitarian assistance to the victims of a massive 7.0 earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation Jan. 12.

Arriving on station less than 72 hours after the quake, Carl Vinson immediately rendered assistance. Over two weeks, Vinson and its embarked 19 helicopters flew more than 2,200 sorties, delivering more than 166 tons of food, 89,000 gallons of water and 38,700 lbs. of medical supplies to earthquake victims.

Additionally, Vinson’s helicopters conducted 476 medical evacuations (MEDEVACs) and the ship’s doctors and corpsmen treated 60 patients in its medical ward.

“I think our Navy team did some great work here for the people of Haiti,” Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group Commander Rear. Adm. Ted Branch said. …

USS Carl Vinson Departs Haiti; Carrier Rendered Critical First Response (emphasis added)

Stand-by Disaster Response Vessels

Instead of diverting a warship from its usual duties, why not have an aircraft carrier that’s always ready to go? While it’d be neat to convert the USS Enterprise into the planet’s first all-purpose disaster response ship, it’s not available for about 2 years. But the Kitty Hawk supercarrier is in storage for possible reactivation, and the Ranger and John F. Kennedy supercarriers are on donation hold to possibly turn into museums. The Forrestal and a few others are shells waiting to be dismantled, sunk for an artificial reef, or used as live-fire targets.

The group trying to bring the JFK to Rhode Island has a page on Disaster Relief Potential for the USS John F. Kennedy.

Retired supercarriers have several advantages over other types of ships as disaster response vessels:

  • Aircraft carriers are versatile. With lodging for over 5,000 sailors and guests (such as marines), they’re a full-service floating city.
  • Aircraft carriers have their own fleet of helicopters. Because disasters frequently compromise the affected region’s transportation infrastructure, heavy-lift helicopters are extremely useful for the response effort. An aircraft carrier can deliver, launch, fuel and and service dozens of helicopters to any shore in the world’s oceans
  • Aircraft carriers are relatively fast ships. The John F. Kennedy and the Kitty Hawk could move at up to 33 knots, the USS Enterprise cruises at 33+ knots, and Nimitz-class carriers cruise at around 31.5 knots. A typical cargo ship travels at 20-25 knots.
Helicopter on the deck of the USS Enterprise

Win Wenger was the inspiration for the original idea of using bubble fences to oxygenate the ocean. When he heard about my plans for this followup, he said the following:

I like VERY much your idea of converting former warships, especially such carriers, into stand-by disaster relief vessels. In fact, one should stand by in an Atlantic port and one in Hawaii or other Pacific port. With that established as their role, they could have tents and non-perishable relief supplies already packed away on board ready to roll, with arrangements in their port cities to be able to load on at the last minute the more perishable medicines and foods as well.

Near the ports where these vessels are stationed, volunteers from among local National Guard units or equivalent could be trained in basics of relief work and on call at a moment’s notice, a ready-made delivery service for relief in countries whose government and infrastructure have been overwhelmed as in Haiti and Pakistan. This could easily get relief to the site of the disaster several days faster than otherwise, saving half or more of the lives now lost in the days immediately following such events, while creating an infinitely better morale situation for the survivors.

Supercarriers are large enough to stock for all types of disasters. Aside from helicopters, tents and non-perishable relief supplies, the ship should be equipped with air and water pumps, unmanned submarines and other equipment for responding to an offshore oil well blowout. The air pumps could be used to implement the original fish-farming proposal while the ship is in its home port.

WW: Both our present wars have made heavy use of helicopters and with the one war shutting down, there is a current surplus of helicopter pilots whose skills our armed forces might want to keep current against possible future contingencies. Seems like these various elements might be made to fit conveniently and economically together.

I recently mentioned the idea of using supercarriers as disaster response ships to a 30-year Navy veteran, a pilot who landed planes on most of the carriers. His first response was that it takes an incredible number of sailors to man a supercarrier, which costs a lot of money. Carriers are very good at what they do, but very expensive at the same time. Removing the carrier air wing would save 2,500 men, but he thought it’d still take maybe 1,500 sailors to man a ship. But he could see the merit of the idea, and suggested focusing on one of the mothballed carriers.

WW: As to the number of sailors required, that’s with combat in prospect. A marginal, semi-retired vessel on a humanitarian aid mission, with international figures and news media along for the ride, could operate the boat safely with a skeleton crew a very small fraction of that 1500 sailors whose salaries would be costing anyway were they parked off duty somewhere else in port. Skeleton crew and maybe part of that a training crew for the Navy.

To defray costs, easily-cleared sectors of the very same vessels can also serve in their home ports as fee-based museums and as restaurants, theaters and conference centers, under strict requirements of being immediately pack-away and cleared at a moment’s notice.

Disaster response is always expensive. Putting a ship that’s currently floating around doing nothing, such as the Kitty Hawk, back into active service by preparing for inevitable disasters to come is a wealth-building strategy. Thousands of people can be put to work manufacturing needed equipment, retrofitting the supercarriers, sewing the tents and creating all the other supplies.

Wealth is only created by humans doing work that solves problems. Plenty of labor is currently available, all that’s needed is a little leadership to put these millions of people to work.

Win Wenger also had this to say about cleaning up the gulf:

WW: As to the kind of disaster duty cited at the beginning of this topic, clearing the spilled oil from the Gulf, would the power from one of our many nuclear-powered submarines suffice for operations? That would seem to be a much less of a big deal to arrange than an aircraft carrier though I certainly like the idea of such a carrier bringing massive and immediate relief to situations like the tsunamis, quakes and fires we’ve seen the past several years and the massive floods currently underway in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China and parts of Europe. Even by itself, what a difference the Kennedy, so provided, could be making right now for us in Pakistan!

My Navy-veteran acquaintance said that even though it’s neither simple nor cheap, converting a ship into a stand-by response vessel could happen if the order came down from high enough. I sent a copy of the original proposal to my Congresswoman, but she’s in her first term, and has other things to be concerned about. I don’t have the president’s ear, or any contacts at the Pentagon.

I met a congressional staffer in November 2010, and gave a summary of how the Enterprise was going to be thrown away, and this idea for keeping it around for service to humanity. Three months later I heard back that she’d forwarded the idea to someone in the Department of Defense, and it would be some time before she received their evaluation.

Do you know anyone that could turn this idea into reality? Yes or no, tell everyone you know: When disaster strikes, send the Enterprise: www.SendTheEnterprise.org.

WW: Your idea certainly is prudent, and appears well worth doing. Sooner or later and probably sooner, our turn will come and it will be many thousands of American lives saved by such stand-by arrangements, not only the human beings living in other parts of the world. Thank you very much for your suggestion.

Sincerely Yours,
James Knochel

6 thoughts on “”

  1. I’m with you on this. I googled “why not convert uss enterprise to hospital ship” and that’s how I found your site. It would be worthwhile to find out the major sources of operating cost beside manpower and figure out commercial means to finance that cost. The conversion to fee-based museum, theaters, etc. is a great idea. Who knows, it can also be made into a special themed cruiseship.

    Another point to be made is that old or not, the Enterprise is still a superior military ship compared to that of other navies. The defense folks would probably like the idea that it’s there to be recalled to service should the need ever arise.

    Perhaps you should send this idea to news organizations. They are good at bringing attention to issues like this.

  2. This idea of a disaster response ship came to me the other day after the Typhoon in the Philippines. My original thought was a repurposed vacation cruise ship but I like the idea of the aircraft carrier because of the helicopter abilities. Paying for this monster of a ship and its staff 24/7 365 would be a major task. However, since disasters happen to every country in the entire world I think some sort of Global Disaster Response team should be created. Those countries would all pay a yearly fee based on possibly their coastal population, miles of coastland, and/or their potential for natural disasters. This GDR team/organization could fall under the United Nations direction also. When storms are approaching landfall, the impacted country can request aid from the U.N. in advance of the total devastation. The U.N. can approve that request and mobilize the ship with the intentions of it arriving the day after the storm, not a week or more after.

    Another thought is the majority of this team does not have to be on the ship 24/7 365 but on call. Obviously there is a huge amount of daily maintenance involved but that can be done by a skeletal crew, possibly on rotation. Once an emergency is declared members would have 24 hours to reach the ship at port before it departed. You can reach anywhere in the world in 24 hours these days and since its a aircraft carrier you could even be delivered to the ship while it is in route if needed.

    We all know that natural disasters are becoming more and more common. So I think we should start this huge task of putting this together now… or yesterday really. Being prepared is the key to surviving these situations and rebuilding fast.

  3. I generally like the idea but it would be a good idea to analyze the costs relative to constructing a specialized disaster relief vessel.

    I am a bit concerned that a carrier will always be perceived as a weapon of war and might not be as welcome as it might be. I would think that measures should be taken to permanently de-militarize the vessel so that it could never be used in a hostile way.

    I am curious what a super carrier in that mode would cost to run. Put another way, take a carrier and subtract the fighter wing and what does it take to keep it running and move it around. If it includes a hospital, the docs can be deployed as needed so they wouldn’t count as permanent staff. Same with other disaster workers. Obviously, the crew that mans the nuclear power plant and other infrastructures on the ship would be permanent. Would all flight operations be permanent? Could flight operations be cut back to just rotary wing aircraft, removing the need for catapults?

    But I particularly like your willingness to think big. We need more of that.

Leave a Reply