"Thy rod and thy staff Comfort me"

Latest in the news about the rescue operations in New Orleans is the dispatching of the hospital ship USNS Comfort. She’s currently in Mayport, Florida, taking on supplies and additional personnel, before heading for New Orleans.

A few less-than-well-informed people like this fellow are wondering what’s taken the Navy so long to get the Comfort down there. After all, it’s been over a week since the disaster truly broke.

I’m a bit of a Navy buff, so I thought I’d take this one on.

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The United States Navy is the biggest navy in the world. In fact, it could probably outfight every other navy in the world combined.

But it’s not infinite.

When everyone thinks of the Navy, they tend to think of the Aircraft Carrier. They are the biggest, most powerful weapons ever to set sail, and we are the only nation that operates true carriers — all the rest are “baby” carriers, usually smaller than World War II-era aircraft carriers.

And we have only 11 to cover the whole 3/4 of the globe covered by water.

That’s merely to give context to this fact: the Navy operates 11 aircraft carriers, and only 2 hospital ships.

The USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort are the only two hospital ships in commission. The Mercy is based out of San Diego, and the Comfort is home-ported in Baltimore.

These are huge ships. They are nearly 900 feet long, 95 feet wide, and displace almost 70,000 tons (making them bigger than the biggest battleships ever built, overshadowing the Iowa and the Yamato).

Just why are they so big? Because they were originally built as oil tankers, back in 1976. They weren’t converted into hospital ships until 1986.

The Navy realizes that it only has two of these magnificent vessels, and treasures them accordingly. Smart observers know that the United States is seriously considering major military action when these ships set sail. Carrier battle groups are relatively easy to move around the globe to show the flag; the hospital ships are far less used as pawns.

Obviously, the crisis in New Orleans could use the benefit of one of these two crown jewels. So, why isn’t at least one of them there already?

Simple logistics. As is often noted, “amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.”

The Comfort is kept, with minimal staffing, in Baltimore. (18 civilian sailors to keep the ship ready, and 58 medical personnel to maintain the medical stuff.) She received her activation orders on August 31. She took on crew (63 sailors and 270 medical personnel), supplies, fuel, and other necessities, and then set sail as soon as possible, with all deliberate speed on September 3.

But “all deliberate speed” is a relative term to the Comfort. As a former oil tanker, she’s not one of the fastest ships in the fleet. At top speed, the Comfort makes 17.5 knots — which works out to a smidgen over 20 miles per hour. And while it’s a little over 1100 miles from Baltimore to New Orleans, that’s “as the crow flies” — driving distance. The Comfort has to go AROUND Florida.

And speaking of Florida, that’s where she is right now. She’s in Mayport, taking on supplies and more medical personnel. The full complement of the Comfort calls for 956 Naval medical staff and another 259 Naval non-medical support staff.

The Navy said it would take the Comfort about a week to get from Baltimore to New Orleans, and that will be Friday.

And I know that if “getting out and pushing” would help her get there faster, there wouldn’t be enough room on the hull for all the willing hands.

Works Cited:

USNS Comfort specifications
USNS Comfort History
United States Navy News Release on the Comfort’s mission

Katrina: Second Draft of History
Hurricane Katrina Response - A Photographic Timeline


  1. chad September 7, 2005
  2. -S- September 7, 2005
  3. ed September 8, 2005
  4. Joe Ego September 8, 2005
  5. AAA Dude September 9, 2005