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Report: Parris Island and other military bases need help preparing for climate change

Inside ‘the Crucible’ - Marine recruits’ grueling, final test on Parris Island

The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet were recently given access to recruits during the 54-hour test — performed with minimal sleep, or food — that “validates the physical, mental and moral training” recruits have endured throughout 13 weeks of b
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The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet were recently given access to recruits during the 54-hour test — performed with minimal sleep, or food — that “validates the physical, mental and moral training” recruits have endured throughout 13 weeks of b

Marine boot camp might eventually need to be moved from Parris Island to avoid the island’s vulnerability to more intense storms and rising seas, a former base commander said Thursday.

His comments follow a new government report saying military leaders haven’t done enough to help prepare bases for climate change. In less than a year, the report said, three bases sustained more than $9 billion in hurricane and flood-related damage.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island has been scrutinized in recent years as among military installations with the most vulnerability.

Most of the island’s 8,095 acres are marsh, with only 3,200 acres on higher ground and habitable. Parris Island is also home to numerous highly polluted areas federal environmental officials deem Superfund sites and are working to clean up.

The base in the town of Port Royal has trained male recruits since 1915 and men and women since 1949 at the iconic site in the mouth of the Port Royal Sound.

About 20,000 recruits from east of the Mississippi River and all the country’s female recruits pass through Parris Island each year. Male recruits from the other half of the country are trained at boot camp in San Diego.

The depot employs 6,100 people and has an economic impact of $739.8 million, according Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce figures. A museum on the island is open to visitors, the public can play a popular 18-hole golf course, and the island includes key historic sites of some of the country’s first Spanish and French settlements.

One of the Marine Corps’ top commanders told a Congressional committee last year that Parris Island might eventually need a sea wall.

By 2050, low areas of the island currently prone to flooding about 10 days a year could be underwater more than 100 days a year, according to the Center for Climate and Security. By 2100, 75 percent of Parris Island could flood during high tides, the group says.

Rising water in the coming decades would affect key areas where marines train recruits several times each year, flooding ranges, parade decks and barracks, the center said.

The causeway to and from the island could be susceptible to flooding if sea levels increase.

Marines can train recruits anywhere in the country and might eventually have to choose a location not threatened by hurricanes and rising seas, said retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, a former commanding general at Parris Island.

“There’s no doubt about it, there’s parts of Parris Island that flood now far more routinely than they used to in the past,” Cheney said. “You can build a sea wall to a point, but eventually because of sea level rise, you’ve really got to look at alternatives to that too.”

Cheney is the CEO of American Security Project, a nonpartisan organization which has studied how climate change threatens national security. The research group’s position has long been that the Department of Defense “is woefully unprepared for rising sea levels and catastrophic weather predominantly caused by climate change,” Cheney said.

He pointed to billions of dollars in hurricane damage at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle as proof.

Better planning

The new government report says the Pentagon needs to better help military bases prepare by requiring master plans and facility designs account for site-specific risks from extreme weather and climate change effects.

Military leaders should also offer guidance for how bases can appropriately include climate predictions in long-range planning and which data to use, the Government Accountability Office report said.

Parris Island told the report’s authors it plans to conduct a sea level-rise study at the base and include the results in its updated master plan. The study is included in a contract already awarded to next update the depot’s master plan, the report said.

Attempts to reach a Parris Island spokesperson Thursday afternoon and Friday were unsuccessful. The base held a graduation for new Marines Friday morning.

But a recently unveiled major project shows depot leadership is aware of the need to prepare.

A new power plant that took 18 months to build replaces a steam-powered plant built in 1941. The facility includes an array of solar panels and battery storage and would allow the plant to power Parris Island while disconnected from a main utility grid.

“With this new plant we have independence,” Brig. Gen. James Glynn said in a release. “If anything were to happen, like a hurricane or a flood, we can still continue to operate and more importantly make Marines.”

The Department of Defense agreed with the recommendations and said military officials are developing rules for using projected sea level changes in master plans and facility designs. While 15 of the 23 military bases studied in the report accounted for climate change to some degree in its plans, its authors found the facilities haven’t consistently considered risks due to a changing climate or properly used climate projections to prepare.

Military officials have already looked to a Lowcountry study for guidance on measures to combat sea level rise.

The Pentagon funded a report published in 2017 for a local planning group to study sea level rise in the communities near Beaufort County’s military bases. The resulting Lowcountry Council of Governments report examined the possible changes needed for roads, drainage and utilities to continue to perform in the event of increased natural disasters and high water.

Ginnie Kozak, the council’s planning director, reported on the study during a sea level rise conference in Charleston last year. The report’s findings have gained attention from the military — especially a detailed breakdown of expected costs for specific improvements to roads and sewers.

Kozak said she recently talked to the Air Force secretary’s office about how the study could be applied to rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base, which sustained an estimated $5 billion in damage after the eye of Hurricane Michael passed over the base last year.

“They just found it really useful that somebody that lived in a military area that’s on the coast had considered real improvements to infrastructure instead of just talking about the problem,” Kozak said.

The public agency planned to work with the Pentagon on another phase of the study that would develop more concrete plans and ways to implement them, Kozak said. But the money hasn’t been available under the Trump administration, she said.

‘No appetite’ for closing bases

Cheney, the former Parris Island commanding officer, said it doesn’t make sense to rebuild Tyndall, where F-22 Raptor pilots train.

And ultimately the only logical choice for the Marine Corps could be moving recruit training from Parris Island, he said. But that’s unlikely to happen.

It’s been 14 years since the most recent Base Realignment and Closure, which determines which military installations should be shuttered and requires federal lawmakers’ approval. An amendment passed by the U.S. House and introduced by Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-SC, this month will ensure no money earmarked for military construction during the next fiscal year will be used to close bases.

In comments on the House floor, Cunningham referred to the BRAC process in 1993 that led to the closure of Charleston Naval Shipyard, the area’s largest employer. The most recent BRAC in 2005 wasted taxpayer dollars that should have been invested in the military, he said.

Potential base closures go before Congress as a list that doesn’t allow lawmakers to cherry-pick the facilities they want to save.

“There’s no appetite for it on the political side,” Cheney said.

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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