Attempt to Block Comfort Move Advances in House

By Matthew Hay Brown
Baltimore Sun Staff Writer

Language introduced by Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to require the Navy to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before moving the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort out of Baltimore has moved out of committee.

The requirement, which came in the form of an amendment to miltary construction legislation, was accepted late Tuesday by the House appropriations committee and will now be considered by the full House.

A Navy spokesman confirmed this week that the Navy is considering moving the Comfort from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., after the current berthing agreement expires in 2013. Ruppersberger, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and others are trying to block the move.

“I am not convinced that moving the Comfort from Baltimore, her home for the past 23 years, is a good idea,” Ruppersberger said Wednesday in a statement. “We must make sure this move won’t hurt the Comfort’s ability to quickly respond to urgent military and humanitarian missions and unnecessarily waste taxpayer dollars. Clearing committee is an important step and I will continue to fight to keep this Baltimore icon home, where it belongs.”

Mikulski, a member of the Senate appropriations committee, is seeking federal funding to study the impact of moving the ship on its wartime and humanitarian missions, and the impact of the home port on the medical facilities that staff the ship.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin weighed in on Wednesday, saying in a statement that the Comfort “has taken on the difficult mission of saving lives and addressing some of the most difficult medical cases – all from the Port of Baltimore. I believe the resources of the Port of Baltimore have enabled the Comfort to fulfill its mission and there is no reason to spend money on a costly move to Norfolk.”

Congress has been considering legislation to authorize $10 million to upgrade a pier to berth the ship in Norfolk. Navy spokesman Lt. Justin Cole said Tuesday it was too early to say whether the Navy would move the ship from Baltimore.

“The Navy is looking at options for the Navy’s home-porting of Comfort when the contract in Baltimore ends in May of 2013,” he said. “There are a lot of options on the table.”

Republican former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a consultant to the port who has been working with Democrats Mikulski and Ruppersberger to block the move, told The Baltimore Sun Tuesday a move is “being considered seriously — but it’s not the first time it’s been considered seriously.”

Berthed in Canton, the Comfort employs 18 civilians, with 60 naval personnel located within a 30-minute drive. For deployments, it takes on additional civilian crewmembers and draws on physicians, nurses, technicians and other staff from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, the Naval Academy in Annapolis and Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

The Navy paid $5 million two years ago to upgrade the Comfort’s Baltimore berth to serve for another 20 years, and pays Keystone Ship Berthing $1 million annually to keep the ship in the port. In a release, Ruppersberger refers to a study indicating that Maryland received $150 million over a five-year period for activities generated by the Comfort.

The Navy berthed the Comfort in Baltimore, which is a half-day’s sail from the open ocean, in part for its proximity to the National Naval Medical Center. A move to Norfolk would put the ship within a few miles of the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

The 894-foot ship, converted from an oil tanker into a 1,000-bed medical center in 1987, was designed to provide emergency medical care for U.S. troops in combat. It deployed to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the war with Iraq in 2003, and has also responded to domestic disasters including the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Throughout its history, the Comfort generally has proved too slow and cumbersome to be useful as an emergency hospital, however. In recent years it has been used primarily for humanitarian relief missions, including a two-month mission to Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake, during which the ship’s medical crew treated nearly 1,000 survivors with broken bones and life-threatening injuries.