U.S. Department of Homeland Security Conducts Planning Exercise

According to a December 8th statement released the homeland Security Department, the Homeland Security Task Force Southeast conducted a command post exercise on December 12 & 13 at the Broward County Convention Center. The purpose of the drill was to exercise the task force's mass migration plan. The task force was established in 2003 to exercise the mass migration plan as part of the national preparedness goal.

The DHS press release stated that “More than 250 response personnel from more than a dozen local, county, state and federal agencies are expected to participate in the two-day exercise. The exercise, mandated by presidential directive, will help planners validate the contents of the plan, identify any areas for improvement and will help responders to become more familiar with the plan and more proficient in their response efforts. The exercise also provides responders with an opportunity to work together in a learning environment, before an event requires a unified response.”

DHS said that the timing of exercise was not reflective of current events or concerns over recent events in Cuba. Additionally, they stressed that “the mass migration plan does not focus on any single country, rather it addresses mass migration from any Caribbean nation.” The exercise also closely follows the Coast Guard’s surprise announcement earlier this month that they would idle eight of their ten Key West-based patrol vessels because of ongoing structural problems. District 7 Coast Guard personnel are now facing the prospect of continuing the daunting missions of providing homeland security, drug interdiction and intercepting illegal immigrants in the Florida Straits without 80% of the usual complement of patrol cutters.

The 17-year old cutters were renovated in 2004, but soon began to show chronic hull cracking and other difficulties. The 110-foot vessels were also lengthened to 123 feet, and other equipment was added to enhance their mission capabilities, providing the Coast Guard with a more modern fleet. Plans to convert all 49 of the Coast Guard’s 110-foot cutter fleet were eventually suspended.

The decision to shelve the cutters comes at a particularly bad time for the Coast Guard. With Fidel Castro’s health an uncertain variable, and rumors of his death being widely circulated, the potential for mass migrations or other unrest in the event of a regime-change in Cuba is very real. This week’s exercise took on heightened importance in the wake of the Coast Guard’s Disclosures. A District 7 Coast Guard public affairs officer Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil told MarEx on Wednesday that the drill participants “Look at all assets available to us, as well as what might be available outside the district.”

The eight cutters are now moored alongside at the Key West Coast Guard base. Coast Guard officials have not yet assigned blame for the problems and they gave no timetables on when or if the boats could return to service. When asked if a mass migration scenario in the Straits of Florida might trigger the Coast Guard to press the eight boats back into service, CDR Brandon McPherson, a US Coast Guard public affairs officer at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington said, “I’m not aware of any plans except to restore the vessels to operating status. Until we have an engineering solution, the cutters will remain out of service.”