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Jul. 17, 2018
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Hurricane Maria: Lanier Corps officials help with disaster recovery

By Pamela A. Keene
 
Fall and winter, usually a little slower time for the Corps of Engineers at Lake Lanier, was nothing but, thanks to a pair of hurricanes in the Caribbean that left Puerto Rico nearly flattened without water and power for months. Over the past six months, about 10 percent of the Corps’ Lake Lanier staff have been deployed for disaster relief for the U.S. Territory, joining other Corps employees from around the world.
 
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA – takes the lead in natural disasters recovery and relief, and the Corps of Engineers is called in to assist state or local jurisdictions to clear debris, provide temporary power and other necessary services,” says Tim Rainey, operations project manager for Lake Lanier. Over his 25 years with the Corps he has been deployed at least a half-dozen times. “One of the Corps’ missions includes emergency support functions in times of disaster.”
 
Hurricane Harvey had already flooded parts of Texas, when Irma formed in the Caribbean and headed toward landfall. Right on its heels, Hurricane Maria aimed squarely for Puerto Rico, already suffering from the effects of Irma.
 
“When storms are projected, FEMA increases its preparations and communications with many agencies, including the Corps.” Rainey said. “The Corps’ Wilmington District was tasked with managing emergency functions related to Irma in the Virgin Islands. The Mobile District, which oversees Buford Dam, was tapped to lead the emergency management office for Maria recovery in Puerto Rico.”
 
Boots on the ground
As the lead district for Maria, several Mobile District employees headed to Puerto Rico even before the hurricane made landfall. They were joined by Corps civilian employees from districts around the world, in all over 3,000 Corps staff have rotated through assignments to help the people of the island recover from the devastation.
 
“Staff from Lanier directly supported the Recovery Field Office and three of the FEMA Mission Assignments – helping restore critical public facilities, including police stations, fire stations and hospitals, debris removal, and installation of temporary roofs,” he said. “We were there to assist local authorities (through FEMA) and took our priorities from them.”
 
The island was devastated, with an estimated six million cubic yards of debris, a total loss of power from the grid and compromised water distribution infrastructure. “The debris removal Mission Assignment for the Corps was 3.9 million cubic yards, which included damaged and destroyed buildings, trees and other structures,” Rainey said. “In addition, we were tasked with providing temporary roof installations for more than 60,000 structures and provided temporary power restoration and generator installation, but in the end, a new mission to rebuild the power grid was established.” This new mission was led by the Corps Pittsburgh District, which is the Corps Temporary Power Center of Expertise.
 
50,000 ‘job sites’
“I heard General Todd Semonite, our Chief of Engineers, put it something like this: Imagine a box of matches dropped on the floor. How long will it take to pick them up? Now, drop 50,000. How long will it take to pick those up? Now, make them the size of power poles, and how long will that take? That’s what is still occurring, an estimated 50,000 power poles to be replaced, with all of the associated wiring, connectors, transformers, and everything else needed to provide distribution of power. This effort is taking place in conjunction with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).”
 
In the meantime, the Corps installed nearly 1,300 generators to supplement the hundreds sourced locally. “As of mid-March, there were more than 800 federally provided generators still in operation there.”
 
All Corps employees who were deployed volunteered for the assignments. For some, the work was similar to what they do in their daily jobs. But for others, it was a new experience. For instance, Lanier Program Analyst Angie Bowling has been working in debris removal. It’s a stretch from her work at Lanier. And across the board, civilian Corps employees are leaving their home jobs to help people whose lives have changed because of natural, or sometimes, man-made disasters.
 
No days off
Corps Chief Ranger Ernest Noe was deployed to serve in an administrative/human resources leadership role as part of the command staff in the Recovery Field Office. It was his job to handle the comings and goings of Corps personnel, from scheduling to paperwork and communication. All staff worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week regardless of what function they were supporting. Park Ranger John Matlack worked in debris removal and has since returned home; Ranger JD Liebrock is expected back by early April.
 
Ranger Tim Campion in his first deployment for disaster recovery was charged with supporting the temporary roof mission. “The goal is to provide temporary fixes, and our authorities are strict,” Rainey said. “If, after a damage assessment, it’s determined that the roof can be repaired, it’s our job to fix it temporarily to provide shelter and to prevent further water, wind and other damage. However, if a roof was beyond temporary repairs, it would not qualify for the program. Unfortunately, people, including the media, didn’t always understand our mission. You simply cannot temporarily fix a roof if there’s nothing left.” To date, more than 55,000 blue roofs have been installed by emergency recovery teams.
 
Rainey tells the back story about the hospital in Vieques that became a hot news item because of the type and pace of repairs. “What the people didn’t understand is that the hospital was damaged beyond the capacity and scope of our recovery mission authorities,” Rainey said. “We go there to assist the local jurisdictions, but our response is still governed by law and our authority to provide assistance. Our job is to help with getting them back on their feet. However, since I left, it is my understanding that FEMA requested another assessment of that hospital and that some sort of contract has been awarded. I do not know the details of the scope of that work.”
 
Other Buford staff who were or are still deployed include Administrative Support Assistant Todd Purnell and Park Ranger Mark Millwood. Rainey said he expects all of his staff to be back by mid-April. 
 
Organized under the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ work is broad, far beyond managing the nation’s more than 600 lakes, dams and projects, such as Buford Dam and Lake Lanier. With nearly 40,000 civilian employees, the organization is tasked with numerous projects, including locks and dams, managing flood control, maintaining and preserving public lands and recreation facilities, navigation projects and building military bases. Employees work around the world. 
 
Additional workload
For the staff at Buford Dam who remained at home, they also expanded their responsibilities and workload while their co-workers were deployed. “The work at Lake Lanier continues even when some of our staff is deployed elsewhere,” Rainey said. “The staff that are not able to deploy end up getting workload added to their responsibilities.  Some of the major items that are ongoing are the implementation of the new Shoreline Management Permit database, continuing to work on the Project Master Plan update, and improving efficiencies in the recreation fee program.  These are on top of all of the regular day-to-day duties and responsibilities for the operation and maintenance of the lake and recreation areas. 
 
“The situation from Hurricane Maria has been challenging for the people of Puerto Rico and all those working to re-establish a secure and safe sense of normalcy, and all of us throughout the Corps who are deployed on these types of projects are always glad to serve.”

Posted online 3/30/18
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