SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division’s area of responsibility covers ten states in the Pacific Southwest, stretching from northern California to West Texas. When disaster strikes, our area of operations expands as Corps experts join a global team, immediately responding with assets all over the world.
Between Aug. 17-Oct. 8, 2017, five major disasters struck the U.S. and its territories. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria made landfall one after the other within 10-14 days of each other. In the immediate wake of the hurricanes, personnel from South Pacific Division’s four districts (Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco) deployed to those ravaged areas.
When disasters occur, USACE teams and other resources are mobilized from across the country to assist local districts and offices on response missions. USACE has more than 50 specially-trained response teams supported by emergency contracts to perform a wide range of public works and engineering-related support missions. Under the Stafford Act, the Corps supports the Federal Emergency Management Agency in carrying out the National Response Plan, which calls on 30 federal departments and agencies to provide coordinated disaster relief and recovery operations. From structures specialists, geologist, civil engineers and other specialties, SPD offers a wide range of expertise to respond to emergency situations.
Under the Stafford Act authorities, the Corps usually provides support to Emergency Support Function 3 (ESF #3), which includes providing public works and engineering-related support for changing requirements of domestic incident management including preparedness, response and recovery actions.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, South Pacific Division provided temporary housing on behalf of FEMA for those hit by the disaster. Los Angeles District executed the housing mission. Sacramento District provided infrastructure assessment and debris planning and response teams.
FEMA went to work implementing Operation Blue Roof: a mission managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide homeowners in disaster areas with fiber-reinforced sheeting to cover their damaged roofs in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida.
One of the critical missions received from FEMA was to provide emergency power to schools in the US Virgin Islands. Brooks Hubbard, a public affairs specialist with the Los Angeles District, deployed in support of hurricane relief efforts to Houston, Texas Sept. 1-Sept. 19 and US Virgin Islands Oct. 10-Nov. 9, 2017 as part of the communications mission. That mission was part of a greater effort to do outreach within the community.
“After the initial distribution of generator setups, an engineer arranged for a group of us to go to on one of the schools and talk STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics),” said Hubbard. “I was delighted to be part of a helping kids up close in their recovery and hopefully influencing them into a STEM career.”
SPD personnel took every opportunity to ensure they engaged with the community in order to build trust and greater rapport with the locals and government leaders.
Sandra Eudy, an Emergency Management Specialist with South Pacific Division, deployed to Puerto Rico Oct. 26-Nov. 28 as an ESF #3 cadre member. She served as a Local Government Liaison (LGL).
“We met with each mayor and emergency manager from all 15 municipalities,” said Eudy. “I saw all the devastation and the work that the Corps was starting from debris clean-up, generator installs to Blue Roof. By the end of my tour I was comfortable knowing I had done a good job, relationships with the mayors were at a good point, debris removal was ongoing and Operation Blue Roof was beginning to gain momentum.”
Just as lights were starting to come on in areas wracked by hurricanes, another disaster hit closer to home for South Pacific Division personnel.
In October, the Northern California wildfires killed 43 people, burned over 1 million acres and destroyed more than 8,900 structures in wine country. The fires displaced thousands of people and caused over $3 billion in damage.
One of those displaced, Steven Martinson of Santa Rosa, sifted through the debris that was once his home. Martinson moved to the Coffey Park neighborhood June 7, 1986. For many residents, the fire advanced with little warning.
“I’m trying to get my dog in bed and he was shaking,” said Martinson. “Fifteen minutes later, this neighbor comes along and says, ‘You’ve got five minutes to get out of here.’”
Through the debris, he found remnants of his entire life: a damaged Nikon camera, ammo from his old hunting rifle and the skeleton of his custom Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. Martinson, one of the many Coffey Park residents to lose their homes in the fires, remained focused on rebuilding.
With disaster recovery efforts already underway, Emergency Management cadre from SPD have managed to balance the demand for Corps experts on the ground.
“The fires got out of control, FEMA requested our ESF #3 activation,” said John Beldin-Quinones, Chief of Readiness and Contingency Operations. “We had to stop sending people to Puerto Rico because we had to take care of our own area of operations, and that’s difficult to do.”
To date, more than 480,000 tons of fire debris has been removed from over 1,500 properties in the affected counties. As of Dec. 14, 188 personnel from SPD are deployed in support of hurricane and wildlife relief efforts.
"We are committed to taking care of people in South Pacific Division," said Brig. Gen. Pete Helmlinger, Commander or South Pacific Division. "Not just within our region, but across the Corps, with SPD members supporting hurricane recover in places like Houston and Puerto Rico, as well as those overseas in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Our personnel stand ready to advise and assist our partners here and beyond."