WASHINGTON — Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski on Wednesday likened the loss of the USNS Comfort to the departure of the Baltimore Colts – and asked Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to reconsider.
The U.S. Fleet Forces Command announced last month that it was moving the white-hulled hospital ship, a fixture of the Baltimore waterfront for a quarter century, to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
"We love the Comfort," Mikulski, chairing a subcommittee hearing Wednesday morning on the Navy's 2013 budget request, told Mabus. "The hospital ship that we've watched since 1987 steam down the bay to for really significant missions serving the nation, whether it's been to respond to Desert Storm and we were there along with the hospital ship Mercy, whether it was responding to the 9/11 off the coast of New York …
"So I want to know how we can keep the Comfort in Baltimore."
Mabus told the Maryland Democrat that the decision to move the "was a purely financial one."
Officials have said the move will save the Navy $1.7 million in the first year and $2.1 million annually after that. The recently upgraded pier in Norfolk also puts the Comfort within a few miles of the medical professionals at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia who staff the ship on deployments, and closer to the open sea.
Mikulski said she understands that "we're in a frugal environment." But she said "we feel real bad that we are going to lose the Comfort."
"It has the same magnitude, if you were in Baltimore when we heard the Comfort was going to leave us, we've had the same feeling as when the Colts left Baltimore," she said.
Maryland Policy & Politics
She asked Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert asked whether the weather in Norfolk would make it more costly to berth the ship there than in Baltimore. When a hurricane approaches, the Navy launches its ships to ride the storms out at sea.
Mikulski asked if the Navy had considered the "hurricane impact."
"I'm going to have to get back to you on that and see what that would be," Greenert said.
Mikulski asked Mabus and Greenert to review the impact "and see if it affects your judgment so we get to keep the Comfort."
"You know, it's my job to fight to keep the Comfort, both for economic reasons and jobs," she said. But if that's not possible, she said – if "facts must speak for themselves" – she asked Mabus to consider other ships for Baltimore.
"We have a 50-foot channel, we now have port capacity that's going to welcome the new ships coming through the Panama Canal," she said. "And if we can welcome these new ships from the Canal, we sure would like to welcome a vessel from the United States Navy.
"We have the Constellation, the older ship, we'd welcome a new ship, and we'd love to keep the Comfort."