Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Mattis: Devastating disasters would again be under discussion in the unlikely event of a government shutdown

WASHINGTON — Long-term Defense Department response to the recent torrent of natural disasters around the world would be under assessment after last week’s partial government shutdown, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday.

“We would begin this assessment before the shutdown and would continue it in the event of further civil emergency or other emergency,” Mattis said during a media roundtable. “But during the shutdown there is no real sort of demand analysis, there is no real assessment of national security.”

During the shutdown, and the continued uncertainty over the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, military units are often called upon to help with disaster relief missions, especially after a Superstorm Sandy like hit the East Coast or Hurricane Harvey, which inundated Texas with over 50 inches of rain in 2018. In the most recent case, the Pentagon sprang into action to respond to famine and disease in Yemen, despite being kept shutdown-bound by President Donald Trump.

But as of Thursday, Defense Department civilian staff is still at work to prepare for continued deployment of units and civilian emergency response resources, Mattis said.

The Defense Department is heavily dependent on federal agencies to fulfill critical services like homeland security and military readiness. But those agencies aren’t in a position to do that during the shutdown, which is now in its 25th day. Defense Department civilians who are considered essential workers, who include troops, defense contractors and some military aid groups, are still on the job. But many civilians are furloughed, and paychecks are delayed.

Should the shutdown continue, Mattis said it will be time to reassess the “flawless” preparations made in the wake of the Superstorm Sandy disaster.

“It’s easy to go back and second-guess, ‘How could you have predicted that certain things were going to happen after Sandy?’” Mattis said. “For Sandy, I would say this is a good question to ask: was there a plan for human response when human response isn’t actually a military response? A human response is, you know, you’re sort of much more of a citizen than you are a military officer, and it takes a little while to roll up our sleeves and actually sort of put our defense people and civilian people to the question of doing it.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Brandon Kimbrough, a civil affairs specialist in the Army, visits families affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, as part of a multi-agency effort to provide temporary housing and meet food, medicine and other needs for more than 2,000 families. Kimbrough says he is grateful the Army is still paying their bills during the shutdown. (U.S. Army)

The military took out loans to cover the costs of the response to the shutdown during the early days of the shutdown, Mattis said, which temporarily subsided human costs of the shutdown. But he cautioned against reading too much into that situation.

“If you saw during the shutdown that the Department of Defense was doing as well as it has, you would almost think that we’d never have another situation that needs such assistance again,” Mattis said. “But there is always another crisis that we’ll have to deal with, it’s just we can’t think in a way that’s, you know, all about Defense Department response.”

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