When a Singapore-flagged container ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Maryland in the early hours of March 26, the U.S. Coast Guard became one of several federal entities mobilized to close the Port of Baltimore waterway, initiate search and rescue operations, and begin clearing tons of wreckage and debris.

That could not be done without tremendous resources from the already lean force that experts say has been underfunded for much of its modern history.

On the scene were four Coast Guard cutters, 36 barges, 27 tugboats, 22 floating cranes, 10 excavators, one dredger, one skimmer and at least 10 more maritime platforms. And required are the individuals who operate these vessels and tools, including 27 Coast Guard civilians, 275 active duty service members, 82 reservists and 23 volunteers, said Nick Ameen, a spokesperson for the joint information center responding to the crisis.

These employees were drawn from their home stations all over the country, including some as far as Alaska and California. That also means these stations are donating staff to the recovery effort in Maryland, but the Coast Guard doesn’t have much to spare as it is, the service’s operations lead said.

“There’s an immediate-area impact to readiness, certainly, but what we know is that for unplanned incidents like this where we mobilize a lot very quickly, there are also readiness impacts that happen well beyond the initial site,” Vice Adm. Peter Gautier, the Coast Guard’s deputy commandant for operations, said during a May 15 hearing on the bridge incident.

“Going into what’s likely to be a pretty severe hurricane season, I think the main thing here is that in order for the Coast Guard to reconstitute and be ready for the next [emergency], we need to have continued and enduring financial appropriations [from] Congress,” he added.

The strain is evidenced in steps the Coast Guard is already taking, including evaluations to flag certain regions for potential consolidation. Other units, including stations in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, have been identified for temporary closure of boat operations.

Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, described the Coast Guard as a “Swiss Army knife” given its diverse array of statutory authorities that give it much to do in civilian and military spheres.

“The regulatory environment that affords them a lot of activities and leniency is ... all compiled in a single agency, and they have a very small workforce,” he told Federal Times. “On a normal day, they operate at that level of capacity. They don’t have any surcharge capacity [for when things get] worse. Now you have something like the bridge incident, and you will be sucking down ... a big percentage of resources for that area.”

The Coast Guard is not even the largest sub-agency housed within the Department of Homeland Security. Its force of 57,000 active duty, reserve and civilian personnel falls below that of Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.

Yet, experts and officials within the service have pointed out the far-reaching and diverse duties it’s charged with: drug interdiction, immigration, environmental protection, emergency response, waterway and coastal security, intelligence gathering, and defense. It acts as a law enforcement body, a prong of the military and a regulatory civilian agency. It works over 3.4 million square miles of exclusive economic zones and defends a coastline that is longer, by most estimates, than the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

In the next decade, the Coast Guard will face several challenges: cyberattacks, submersibles in the drug trade, climate change and worsening natural disasters, unpredictable international conflict, and personnel shortages.

The good news, Nieto-Gomez said, is that the service has most of the actual authorities it needs to be able to respond to these emerging dangers — with some exceptions.

“There is a difference between having the statutory authority or having the capability,” he said.

For fiscal year 2025, the Coast Guard requested $12.3 billion, which includes a plan to overhaul the personnel-staffing approach that undergirds its human resources system. The service already rolled out a plan for a permanent recruiting specialty for enlisted members, matching what other military branches have. Still, the recent collision affecting the Key Bridge shows disasters don’t wait for funding or readiness to be where they need to be.

“This incident unfortunately comes at a time of strained resources and a 10% workforce shortage,” Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., said during the hearing.

Gauthier said the force has already spent about $20 million in direct and indirect incident costs, and there’s “no guarantee over time” that the Coast Guard will be able to perform at this level without support from Congress for things like more aids-to-navigation and cutter modernization — or recapitalization.

Earlier this month, a cutter returned from a counter-narcotics deployment in the Eastern Pacific Ocean where it was patrolling more than 12,000 nautical miles — roughly the size of five spans of the continental United States.

Nieto-Gomez said he was once told that this breadth of work is like patrolling the state of Kansas with a single police car.

“Now you take them and you move them to a bridge that needs to be dealt with, and you are pulling metal and you have a ship that’s still stuck there with a crew that remains on board. [There] was already a limited workforce to do a very important job that needs to be done,” he said. “And frankly it’s very possible that nobody else can do it.”

Congress has shown its intent to take action. The House cleared a bill on May 14 to authorize $12 million to fund recruiters and offices for Coast Guard Recruiting Command and an additional $9 million for recruiting capability in fiscal 2025. That passed in a 376-16 vote.

The bill also aims to improve quality of life for Coast Guard service members, a factor that, like pay competitiveness and work-life balance, may give the private sector an edge.

“While the service is cautiously optimistic regarding FY2024 recruiting efforts, we must continue to generate more awareness of the Coast Guard’s value to the nation, message the benefits of military service and identify more candidates for potential recruitment,” the deputy commandant for mission support, Vice Adm. Paul Thomas, told lawmakers on May 6.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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