Navy might move hospital ship from Baltimore

The Navy is considering moving the hospital ship USNS Comfort from its home in the port of Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., when its current berthing agreement expires in 2013, officials said Tuesday.

Maryland's representatives in Washington are trying to block such a move. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is seeking federal funding to study the impact that moving the ship would have on its wartime and humanitarian missions. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger introduced legislation Tuesday that would require the Navy to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before making a decision.

"The USNS Comfort has long been a source of pride and jobs for its home, the port of Baltimore, and the rest of the region," Ruppersberger said in a statement. "When a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina or the recent earthquake in Haiti strikes, time is of the essence. The Comfort and its team of military medical professionals quickly answer the call to serve."

Congress has been considering legislation to authorize $10 million to upgrade a pier to berth the ship in Norfolk. A spokesman for the Navy confirmed that Norfolk was one option; he said staying in Baltimore was another.

"The Navy is looking at options for the Navy's home-porting of Comfort when the contract in Baltimore ends in May of 2013," said Lt. Justin Cole, the spokesman. "There are a lot of options on the table. It's too early to tell whether the Comfort will shift away from Baltimore."

Republican former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a consultant to the port who has been working with Democrats Mikulski and Ruppersberger to block the move, said "it's 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, and pays Keystone Ship Berthing $1 million annually to keep the ship in the port.

Bentley, who helped to bring the Comfort to Baltimore as a member of Congress in 1988, said a move to Norfolk would be "a waste of money" that would be "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

"We consider the Comfort an icon in this port," she said. "When you're driving in any direction you can see the Comfort, and it is a comfort."

Ruppersberger visited the Comfort in January as it prepared to deploy to Haiti to assist after the earthquake there.

"I was amazed at how quick and well-orchestrated the extensive undertaking was," he said. "I fear moving the ship to Norfolk will make that job harder and waste taxpayer dollars in a time when every dollar matters."

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.