High seas and low maintenance: Inside the turbulent US effort to build a pier into Gaza

Hours after President Joe Biden touted the success of the temporary pier the military had just constructed into Gaza during his commencement speech at West Point last Saturday, White House staffers learned the pier was at risk of falling apart.

By Tuesday, heavy seas and a surprise North African storm had beached four Army vessels and caused enough damage that the whole thing had to be towed to Israel for repairs.

“We were all disappointed,” a senior administration official told CNN, adding that up until it broke apart, the pier had performed well enough that officials were preparing to increase the amount of aid delivered over it.

The pier represents months of work by officials trying to come up with a way to get aid into Gaza without dropping it out of planes or trucking it through border checkpoints. Even though it was operational for only about a week, the pier helped deliver some 1,000 metric tons of aid into Gaza before breaking apart.

That’s well short of the military’s goal of moving 500 tons of aid per day over the pier. And delays initially stalled distribution of what did make it into Gaza. The pier also came with a significant price tag of $320 million and required 1,000 US military personnel to complete before breaking apart last week.

But with air drops having ceased in recent weeks, and the land route into Rafah currently closed, the pier remains a potential lifeline for thousands of Gazans facing a humanitarian crisis.

Biden officials say they’re optimistic it can be successfully repaired and rebuilt in the coming weeks, but significant questions remain about the pier’s reliability, ones that led the administration to decide against deploying it months earlier.

CNN spoke to multiple US officials who detailed the months of planning, preparations and trouble shooting that went into building the pier, as well as the effort underway to repair it and keep it operational.

A decade since last use

Officials with the US Central Command first brought up the option of building a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza in late October, the senior administration official told CNN. The risks however were deemed too great at the time, with unpredictable winter weather and heavy fighting in Gaza.

The pier also didn’t have a great track record operating in choppy seas.

During a major military exercise in Australia last year, US soldiers had to wait for a “narrow window” of opportunity to deploy the pier because of heavy seas. They had similar problems during a training exercise off the coast of Virginia in 2016.

It’s also been more than a decade since the military last used this kind of floating pier, known as a Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore, or JLOTS, in a real operation, when it delivered humanitarian aid to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“This is something that we haven’t done in a really long time,” a defense official told CNN.

“We assumed a lot of risk in using a military operation for this purpose,” a second senior administration official added. “We have done these kinds of operations before but not for this specific purpose, this capability is not typically used in these cases which creates a different dynamic”

‘These vessels are old’

There are also questions as to how well the Army maintains watercraft involved in JLOTS missions. Speaking to CNN on condition of anonymity, a retired warrant officer who served as a chief engineer on Army watercraft criticized the capability as a whole, saying that the Army has for years underestimated the difficulty around using the floating pier and does not invest enough resources to it.

“Army boats have not been ready, capable, or in a mindset they’ll have to do something dangerous or in the real world … for decades now,” the retired engineer said.

Another US official agreed that the watercraft that perform JLOTS missions have not been maintained “to the level they need to be,” primarily because “they lack the funding to get the repair parts in a timely manner.”

Those repair parts are also hard to come by. The US official said they’re often not parts you can buy off the shelf like you can for some Army vehicles.

“These vessels are old,” the US official said, adding that even just days before the boats left for Gaza, soldiers were working on repairs on at least one of them.

The retired engineer was far more critical, saying rust on the boats is “not removed, parts are not really fixed, the companies that supply the parts are all out of business so it’s a problem to get replacement parts when you need them.”

Asked by CNN if the Army has resourced its watercraft well enough, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she believed the Army has invested in it appropriately.

“The JLOTS capability is a great capability and is something I think that can have a lot of utility there, but it was never designed to be able to operate in these high seas,” she said, adding that the state of the sea where JLOTS was anchored is unusual for this time of year but that they are expecting it to calm “in a few days.”

Waiting for the weather

Before committing to building the pier, the Pentagon had briefed the White House that weather could be an impediment. It did a study going back 10 years to look at weather patterns in that part of the Mediterranean and ultimately determined it was a safe enough bet. The storm that came through last week wasn’t expected.

“This was kind of anomalous weather incident,” the first administration official said. “So we knew that it had limitations in terms of the weather but the studies they looked at showed we weren’t likely to encounter them … during the summer period.”

A Maxar Technologies satellite image, taken on Tuesday, May 28, shows a large section of the floating pier is missing. - Maxar Technologies
A Maxar Technologies satellite image, taken on Tuesday, May 28, shows a large section of the floating pier is missing. - Maxar Technologies

Similar concerns were raised when the pier was first considered last fall.

The conversation around a maritime corridor began near the end of October, the first administration official told CNN, when Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides surfaced the idea at a foreign affairs council meeting described by sources as “big picture” but included little detail about who would provide the financing and construction. Though the US wasn’t present at the meeting, the White House heard of it through other partner nations who were there, including France and the UK, the official said.

As the White House began exploring options, officials studied the feasibility of the temporary pier, which was ultimately deemed too risky at the time because of IDF operations and the weather conditions at that time of year.

But that calculus changed in January and February as the need for humanitarian aid grew more dire. US officials began touching base with their counterparts in Cyprus and Israel to explore the logistics including force protection by the IDF and using Cyprus as the staging point for aid.

Around that time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resurfaced the idea in a conversation with US officials, who then directed the Pentagon to evaluate it again, according to sources close to the matter. A major reservation was the competition for Pentagon resources: Along with the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost, officials knew the project would also require thousands of US personnel to pull off.

As officials explored the potential of the pier, the US military started conducting air drops of humanitarian aid, which provided more than 1,200 tons of food and aid, but also proved dangerous.

In early March, at least five people were killed when airdropped packages fell on them. Weeks later, a dozen Palestinians drowned off the northern Gaza coast when they swam out to reach cargo that landed in the sea.

That month, the White House gave the greenlight for the pier and President Joe Biden announced at this State of the Union address that he was directing the military to lead an emergency mission to build a temporary pier along the coast of Gaza.

‘Don’t let it happen again’

Despite its challenges, officials are still confident that the pier is a valuable way to continue getting aid into Gaza, where the population is experiencing “full-blown famine.”

This handout photo shows a truck carrying humanitarian aid across Trident Pier off the Gaza Strip on May 19. - US Army Central/Handout/Reuters
This handout photo shows a truck carrying humanitarian aid across Trident Pier off the Gaza Strip on May 19. - US Army Central/Handout/Reuters

Deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said Thursday that it has “been an important piece of our overall humanitarian efforts.” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said Tuesday that it was critical for the people of Gaza to “get whatever aid they can — by whatever means.”

As of Thursday, all of the pier pieces had been towed to Ashdod in Israel where defense officials said they would likely undergo welding and have pins that keep the pier together replaced.

But even repairing the pier through welding would be dependent on weather, and increasingly difficult to complete if the seas don’t settle.

“Imagine welding in ‘Mad Max,’ basically, you’re standing on the back of a semi going down a highway and you’re trying to weld something precisely. It’s just not reasonable unless you have perfect conditions,” the engineer said.

It’s unclear how the military will adjust to potentially rougher seas later in the year. Another defense official said there are conversations around removing the pier if bad weather is approaching, though that could require removing it from the beach and then re-anchoring it afterwards.

“The main thing now is, whatever happened, don’t let it happen again,” the defense official said.

But ultimately, officials stressed that the answer remains for Israel to open more land crossings, which the administration has repeatedly said is the best way to get aid into Gaza.

Deputy Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh emphasized that the solution to aid to Gaza remains the land crossings. The air drops, and the pier, are just additive ways to get aid in, she said.

“It is not the solution,” she said of the pier. “And so I just have to remind you that the best way for food, medical, fuel whatever is needed to get into Gaza is through those land routes.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com