– A man and his daughter were clinging to the hull of their flooded kayak in vast St. Helena Sound in August when they heard the chirring rotor blades and saw the familiar orange fuselage of the U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue helicopter.
Boaters in straits won’t have that copter nearby much longer. The U.S. Coast Guard is closing the Johns Island remote air facility that houses one of five search-and-rescue helicopters assigned to its Savannah station, even as the state’s congressional delegation and local officials fight to save it. The closing date is Nov. 30.
The helicopter would move back to the Georgia station and eventually on to somewhere else. The Georgia station, 80 miles from Charleston, will be cut back to three helicopters for rescue missions ranging from mid-Florida to the North Carolina line – a move that piles critical minutes onto response times in emergency calls.
Rescues would continue to be undertaken by boats moored in Charleston and other Coast Guard ports. Other support would include fixed-wing aircraft from an air station in Elizabeth City, N.C., more than 300 miles away. State and local agencies and nearby “good Samaritan” mariners also would be called on, according to the Coast Guard.
The maritime community was stunned to hear that a port where tens of thousands of pleasure and commercial craft travel each year would be left without a vital search-and-rescue helicopter.
“Wow, I can’t believe that. We’ve got a ton of boats in and out of Charleston Harbor. Knowing you have a local helicopter that can come immediately – response time is so important,” said Steve Leasure, a Charleston-based deep-sea sport fisherman.
“If you take away the Charleston helicopter, then the whole north half of this region is going to be impacted demonstrably, where most of the container ship traffic runs. It could end up to be a big loss in lives as well as property,” said Denver Merrill, Maritime Association of South Carolina vice president.
“I think most people understand an air resource is going to be the quickest to a boat. It would seem to be a no-brainer to continue (running the facility).”
The closing is a cost-cutting move, the service’s pointed response to a federal budget sequestration compromise that calls for mandatory spending cuts each year. The other Coast Guard air facility being closed is in Newport, Oregon, near the busy and treacherous Columbia River delta.
The Coast Guard defended the Charleston facility closure by citing a 43 percent drop in search-and-rescue missions, from 153 in 2011 to 86 in 2014.
“This change to the search-and-rescue system does not impact the Coast Guard’s capability to respond,” said Carlos Diaz of the service’s media relations team. “In addition to decreasing SAR cases, recent investment in the SAR system, with more capable assets and better technology to detect and locate distress, has reduced the required number of response assets.”
The cost savings is $6 million, a tiny fraction of the service’s nearly $15 billion budget. The closure has been proposed for the past few years but has been stopped by local and South Carolina congressional delegation pressure. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has headed up an effort to stop it again.
“We’re still talking with the Coast Guard,” Graham said. “It’s a big issue for the community. You replace sequestration and this goes away. We’re destroying the finest military in the world; it will be slashed by half by the end of the decade.”
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said the facility is an important component to the safety and security of the port. “I’m not giving up,” he said. “But the process is convoluted in a way it didn’t use to be.”
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has been working with Graham and has written the Obama administration trying to stop the closure, he said. “It may be (the facility) has not been needed as often as before. But when it’s needed, it’s needed.”