On Wednesday, Rear Admiral Jake Korn will relieve me as the Coast Guard District Commander for the Southeast United States and the Caribbean — the Coast Guard’s busiest and most challenging region. At the same time, I will close out my 33-year Coast Guard career.
As I reflect, I am amazed by how much some things have changed while others have remained the same. One thing that has not changed: We are not good at making sure the American public understands the broad array of Coast Guard missions. Everyone knows our role as lifesavers. Most realize we do maritime law enforcement. But much of our work, such as ensuring the safety of commercial vessels and combating oil spills, is not noticed — unless something goes wrong.
South Florida and I go way back. My first patrol was during the Mariel-Key West Boatlift of 1980. Although we now have a federal task force ready for another mass migration, migrant smuggling remains a problem. Ruthless smugglers endanger the lives of their human cargo on a regular basis. I remain appalled at what they will do to profit from human suffering and dread the next report of a capsized smuggling boat with dozens of deaths. We need everyone’s help in the fight against these smugglers.
In 1980, narcotics smuggling was one of the region’s most pressing challenges. My first seizure was a shrimp boat loaded with 27 tons of marijuana. Incredibly, the crew claimed that they had not noticed the marijuana. Narco-traffickers today are much more sophisticated and focused on cocaine. But the Coast Guard is still in the middle of this fight.
Throughout the Caribbean, Coast Guard cutters and maritime patrol aircraft combat cocaine smugglers. In fact, maritime interdictions are the most efficient and cost effective way to keep drugs off the America’s streets. In the last nine months, we have interdicted over 75,000 pounds of cocaine, or 50 prcent more than all domestic law-enforcement agencies combined seize in an average year.
South Florida is no longer the primary arrival point for cocaine thanks to aggressive work by federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies working with the Bahamian government. But the cocaine is still coming, and traffickers are more violent. Puerto Rico is currently experiencing cocaine-induced violent crime at an appalling rate. To help out, we shifted significant resources and last year saw a tenfold increase in cocaine interdictions in the Central Caribbean. However, the fight continues.
In 1980, I experienced my first hurricane. We were at sea, and it was rough. Weather forecasting has improved, but increased coastal development makes us more vulnerable than ever to storm damage. Hurricane season is already here. It’s always better to be prepared than be rescued.
Boating safety remains an important Coast Guard mission. In 1980, the use of EPIRBs, beacons that communicate distress signals to satellites, had just begun. Then, EPIRBs cost thousands of dollars and were for large ships. Today, they cost only a few hundred, affordable for even the smallest boats. However, too few use them. It broke my heart every time I had to suspend a search for missing boaters and notify loved ones. If only they had had an EPIRB, they might still be alive.
In the last 18 months, six new 154-foot Fast Response Cutters have arrived in Miami. Named after enlisted heroes, they give us significantly better capability in coastal waters. On the other hand, though, our large cutters are old and failing fast.
My first cutter, the USCGC Dependable, was 13 years old in 1980. She was designed to last for 30 years. Today, at age 46, she and her sister ships are still our primary tools for fighting cocaine and migrant smuggling. According to the Government Accountability Office, 10 of the 12 major cutters responding after the 2010 Haiti earthquake suffered engineering casualties that forced them to return to port for repairs. Earlier this year, the Coast Guard released a request for proposals for a new class of Offshore Patrol Cutters to take their place. I am optimistic that replacements will come, but our aging cutters can only last so long.
Serving my country has been an awesome privilege for the last 33 years. I would like to thank the many friends, colleagues and community partners who made it possible. I especially want to thank the men and women of the Coast Guard for their steadfast courage and commitment in protecting those on the sea, protecting the nation from threats delivered by the sea and protecting the sea itself.
Rear Admiral William (Bill) Baumgartner is commander of the Seventh Coast Guard District.