When disaster strikes, the U.S. government responds, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a vital part of that National Response Framework. Now, teams from the Corps are working around the clock to support the recovery from September’s catastrophic hurricanes – Irma, which devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and parts of Florida, and Maria, which tore through Puerto Rico two weeks later. The Louisville District has taken on the debris removal mission in these areas, coordinating with FEMA and local partners. Twenty-two district employees have deployed to the Caribbean, and more are on the way.
“The team has been doing a great job overcoming obstacles – lack of communications, weather, lodging, and power,” said George Minges, acting chief, Louisville District emergency management and security branch. “While working long hours, they have been able to excel as a team to get the debris management mission up and running with limited resources. They are 100 percent building strong and taking care of people.”
In the Virgin Islands, debris subject matter experts are coordinating with the USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Contract Specialist Jesse Scharlow was part of the Debris Planning and Response Team stationed on St. Croix. He described the work, which included assembling the stakeholders, assessing damage, and finally planning and preparing for debris clearance, removal and disposal.
During aerial assessments, experts estimated a total of 1.1 million cubic yards of debris for removal across St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix – that’s the equivalent of 350 Olympic-size swimming pools.
“Our team is fully committed to ensuring the people living and working in the Virgin Islands are given the full support of the Corps of Engineers,” Scharlow said. “I am honored to have been chosen for this assignment, and it means the world to be able to assist those in need.”
The Corps responded to Irma so quickly that when Maria barreled through, some team members were already in place on St. Croix, which, while spared the worst of Irma, was hit hard by Maria.
Quyet La, resident engineer for the Debris PRT in St. Croix, described the humbling experience of weathering Hurricane Maria’s category five winds.
“Experiencing Mother Nature’s wrath reminds you of her power,” he said. “Her force is immense, but some of the most difficult part is witnessing the aftermath of the decimation. Power, water, internet, comms: in a blink – gone.”
“I have always been proud to work for the Corps, but more so during these events,” he said.
The scene in Puerto Rico is no better. Current estimates figure that five to six million cubic yards of debris need to be picked up, reduced – to take up less space in landfills – and ultimately disposed of, while meeting all environmental quality requirements, explained Greg Hales, a debris subject matter specialist.
“To visualize this amount of debris, picture 100 acres piled 37 feet high,” he said.
Hales is responsible for coordinating emergency route clearance and debris removal activities with all team members from the federal government and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Working out of a San Juan hotel they plan future route clearance and debris removal and disposal across the island.
“Emphasis is put on reuse and recycling, as the existing landfills in the commonwealth are near capacity,” said Hales.
Hales also provides technical support to the local government, helping to expand their capabilities and improve efficiency, and is coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard to support their pending removal of up to 200 sunken vessels, to prevent contamination of the coastal waters.
Even with the exhausting schedule – they work 12-hour days, seven days a week – team members are unbowed.
Hales has requested to extend his tour to sixty days. “I may return again after a short break,” he said.
Quyet La explained that their resilience is nothing compared to that of the people they are helping.
“Despite the calamity, they are still spirited,” he said. “No doubt they shall rebuild. I am glad we get to be a part of the recovery.”