Walla Walla District employees’ volunteer spirit helps hurricane-struck Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Story by Gina Baltrusch WALLA WALLA, Wash. – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District employees continue volunteering to support hurricane-recovery efforts in response to Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) requests for support, according to District emergency management officials. […]

Story by Gina Baltrusch

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District employees continue volunteering to support hurricane-recovery efforts in response to Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) requests for support, according to District emergency management officials.

Crews set four concrete reinforced 50 foot power poles.  These are 8,000 lbs each and require the use of two of our boom trucks working in tandem to lift and set.  The team also connected a number of houses and ran primary service lines along a road to a nursing home. Once turned on, the work will power two water pumps, a nursing home, several businesses and hundreds of homes. Daniel Heath, a realty specialist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District, deployed Nov. 14 to Dec. 28, 2017, to help support FEMA’s Power Grid Restoration mission in Puerto Rico. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Crews set four concrete reinforced 50 foot power poles. These are 8,000 lbs each and require the use of two of our boom trucks working in tandem to lift and set. The team also connected a number of houses and ran primary service lines along a road to a nursing home. Once turned on, the work will power two water pumps, a nursing home, several businesses and hundreds of homes. Daniel Heath, a realty specialist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District, deployed Nov. 14 to Dec. 28, 2017, to help support FEMA’s Power Grid Restoration mission in Puerto Rico. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Eight District volunteers are currently deployed in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, supporting FEMA missions that provide emergency temporary power, manage storm debris disposal, assess damaged critical infrastructure, provide temporary housing and roofing, restore power grid capability and logistics-management services for FEMA’s various planning and response teams (PRTs). About 90 FEMA-requested hurricane-related deployment positions, nicknamed “taskers,” have been filled by District volunteers, since late-August.

Most deployments are originally scheduled to last about 30 days, according to Richard Cannon, the District’s emergency management deployment coordinator. However, he noted more than a dozen employees have volunteered to extend their deployments to about 60 days. In addition to having the technical knowledge and skills needed for a specific deployment position, employee-volunteers must have their supervisor’s permission to deploy, meet a variety of FEMA and Corps training requirements, and complete a medical screening to be approved to go.

While doing your job for a month or more on a tropical island might sound like a vacation, hurricane-recovery missions mean hard work, usually 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Deployees said the opportunity to help those who need it most is worth the long hours away from the comforts of home.

“One tends to quickly lose awareness of which day of the week it is, and you are constantly running on fumes, so to speak, and coffee. Lots of coffee,” recalled Chad Rhynard, chief of maintenance engineering at the District headquarters in Walla Walla, Washington, who deployed to Florida Sept. 9-24, 2017, as an action officer for the District’s temporary emergency power planning and response team (PRT). “But, knowing that entire communities are going through extraordinarily difficult circumstances kept complaints to a minimum.”

“We provided temporary power to schools…it was important to help bring some measure of normalcy to the kids’ lives,” said Don Redman, the District’s environmental compliance coordinator who deployed as a mission manager Nov. 16, 2017 to Jan. 5, 2018, with the District’s temporary emergency power PRT to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“I most appreciated that I was able to go and help the people of Puerto Rico, where my family is from. I have relatives that are still living without power there.” said Brigida Sanchez, a District public affairs specialist who voluntarily deployed Sept. 6, 2017, to Atlanta, Georgia, to assist the Corps’ South Atlantic Division’s emergency operations center as they coordinated the Corps’ response efforts to Hurricane Irma in Florida. Then she deployed to Puerto Rico, Sept. 28 to Nov. 10, to support Corps operations there. “Every day we would hear stories that would make one proud to be there helping. We could visibly measure the progress of our (Corps/FEMA) work. We saw the people of Puerto Rico motivated and picking up debris, cleaning the schools, fixing what they could with what little they had left. There were also tough days when you realize there are limitations, and those are the days you just work a little bit harder and depend on the people you work with and for to bring you some levity.”

“What impressed me the most was the amount of people helping from all agencies of the U.S. and the amount of work being done. There is still a lot of work to do, and a new hurricane season coming up in June. I just hope things get back closer to normal before that,” said Alfredo Rodriguez, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civil engineer from the Walla Walla District’s Hydrology and Hydraulics Branch, who assessed hurricane-damaged critical public facilities in Puerto Rico Nov. 21 to Dec. 23, 2017; and previously deployed to Houston, Texas, to support water-management operations Aug. 23 to Sept. 10, 2017, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Serving on an emergency-response mission with fellow employees ranks among many District volunteer-deployees’ fondest memories.

“I have so much pride in the District’s emergency power team,” said Rhynard. “This was my last mission after 10 years of being on the team, as I’ve turned a new chapter in my career with the Corps. Over the years, we’ve been able to help disaster-struck communities all over the country, and now in the U.S. territories. I’m going to miss it, but I know that the people who are being trained and deployed are some of the most-professional and high-performing individuals I’ve ever been blessed to work with. Walla Walla can be proud of these folks and what they do for our country!”

For more information about the Corps’ ongoing hurricane-response missions in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, visit http://www.usace.army.mil/Hurricane-Irma/.

US Virgin Islands: This week the Temporary Power Teams switched out. Job well done to Tulsa District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - welcome to the team from WallaWallaUSACE! Happy Thanksgiving! (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

US Virgin Islands: This week the Temporary Power Teams switched out. Job well done to Tulsa District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – welcome to the team from WallaWallaUSACE! Happy Thanksgiving! (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Contractors working for the Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico install the first Blue Roof on the Multy Medical Facilities in San Juan. Having the roof protected will allow the hospital to open up additional patient beds/rooms that were previously unavailable because of the damaged roof. Brigida Sanchez, a Corps public affairs specialist from the Walla Walla District, (left) photographically documents the event. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

Contractors working for the Corps of Engineers in Puerto Rico install the first Blue Roof on the Multy Medical Facilities in San Juan. Having the roof protected will allow the hospital to open up additional patient beds/rooms that were previously unavailable because of the damaged roof. Brigida Sanchez, a Corps public affairs specialist from the Walla Walla District, (left) photographically documents the event. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is prepared and ready to respond to natural and human-made disasters. When disasters occur, Corps teams and other resources are mobilized from across the country to assist our local districts and offices to deliver our response missions. The Corps is part of the federal government’s unified national response to disasters and emergencies, and serves as the lead agency to respond with public works and engineering support, and to coordinate long-term infrastructure recovery. The Corps conducts its emergency response activities under two basic authorities – the Flood Control and Coastal Emergency Act, and mission-assigned by FEMA, under the Stafford Disaster and Emergency Assistance Act.

In any disaster, the Corps’ top priorities are 1) support immediate life-saving and life-safety response priorities; 2) sustain lives with critical commodities, temporary emergency power and other needs; and 3) initiate recovery efforts by assessing and restoring critical infrastructure.

FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror. For information about FEMA’s hurricane response and recovery efforts, visit their website https://www.fema.gov/. Check out http://www.usace.army.mil/Missions/Emergency-Operations/  or more information about the Corps of Engineers’ emergency management mission and roles in supporting national disasters.

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