Even as the missile alarms shrilled in the background, leaders from U.S. Northern Command and the federal Department of Homeland Security were focused on bigger threats swirling above the Atlantic.
Hurricane Florence, the first big, threatening hurricane of 2018, brings flashbacks to this time last year when the Colorado Springs command and Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency scrambled to combat a string of hurricanes that battered the landscape from Houston to Puerto Rico.
The difference this year, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says, is that agencies are getting ready earlier.
“This hurricane is many days away,” she said of Hurricane Florence, spinning away on a massive screen in the command center for Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, “but we are preparing now.”
The military and FEMA faced a storm of criticism last year after Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma stretched the nation’s disaster resources to the breaking point. Homeland Security handles the civilian side of federal disaster response, and the Defense Department’s assistance in hurricanes comes from U.S. Northern Command.
The Government Accountability Office in a report released last week found that the federal response to the hurricanes was hampered by logistical problems and the far-flung incidents that happened in quick succession left FEMA with too few workers to handle the load, the agency said in the report.
“The 2017 hurricanes and wildfires highlighted some longstanding issues and revealed other emerging response and recovery challenges,” the report said.
Northern Command boss Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy said strengthened relationships with Homeland Security should also help both agencies move with greater speed if hurricanes hit this year.
“The level of collaboration between our teams has gotten even stronger,” he said.
The two leaders didn’t address apparent friction between the agencies revealed in the Government Accountability Office report, which showed the Pentagon’s worry that civilian agencies are growing more likely to call for military help when disaster strikes.
“The increased reliance may create vulnerability, if in the future,(military) capabilities are needed to conduct (the military’s) primary mission — to defend the nation from threats concurrent with a domestic disaster response,” the report found.
Instead, they highlighted a recent joint visit they made to Puerto Rico to assess the federal response and plan for the storms of 2018.
Homeland Security and Northern Command have been joined at the hip since birth. Both were conceived by Congress after the 9/11 attacks to better protect America from terrorism and to build stronger systems for the government to respond to disaster.
“We share a common lineage,” O’Shaughnessy said.
Nielsen came to Colorado Springs to see how the agencies work together. And the bonds are evident. Northern Command is loaded with civilians from FEMA and other Homeland Security agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration. Northern Command also hosts a significant contingent from Homeland Security’s sole armed service, the Coast Guard.
O’Shaughnessy said the two agencies share responsibilities to fight terror, control America’s air space and police the seas.
“The homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” he said.
The two agencies also have new bosses. O’Shaughnessy took over the top job at Northern Command in May after leading Air Force efforts in the Pacific. Nielsen got the Homeland Security job in December, replacing John Kelly who became President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.
The two have collaborated in a number of venues, including an August incident in Seattle that saw an airline employee steal a twin-engine commuter plane and crash it into an island.
“When it is a really bad day or when we even think it’s going to be a really bad day, Northern Command comes through,” Nielsen said.
The agencies also share intelligence on cyber threats. Nielsen highlighted her agencies efforts to secure the fall elections from hacking, including what she described as “nation-state threats.”
“I will never be the person who tells you we are 100 percent prepared,” Nielsen said. “We are substantially better prepared.”
Nielsen also put in a plug for more Coast Guard ice-breakers — ships used to patrol northern sea lanes the Navy cannot reach. That has also been a priority for Northern Command, which is keeping a wary eye on increased Russian military activity in the Arctic.
Congress has threatened to cut the Coast Guard shipbuilding budget to finance other priorities, including the border wall pushed by President Donald Trump.
Nielsen wants the new polar cutters for the Coast Guard fleet.
“The importance of them cannot be overstated,” she said.
As the secretary and the general answered questions, the missile alarm wailed to life.
Northern Command troops sprang to phones to figure out what was launched and where it was aimed. With American military satellites sensitive enough to pick up the smallest rocket launch around the globe, O’Shaughnessy didn’t flinch.
It was just another Thursday in the command center. The missile, location undisclosed, wasn’t a threat.
“About two times a day, we’re getting a missile alert,” he said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx