In late August, as Hurricane Irma churned in the Atlantic Ocean, staff with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District were making plans to get the right people with the right skill set in the right location in time for the storm.
By the first week of September, several key team members were in place to deal with the aftermath to come.
At the very heart of the operation was an emergency operations center. Experts from multiple disciplines staffed the center and captured critical information needed to guide important and often life-saving decisions.
Corps officials established the emergency operations center in downtown Jacksonville, but just days before Irma’s arrival, local authorities identified the downtown area as an evacuation zone. The forecast warned that Irma would inundate the downtown area with rain and storm surge.
As a result, 48 hours before landfall, Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk moved his EOC team to a secondary operating location at Camp Blanding – a Florida Army National Guard training base located about 40 miles inland and away from the downtown evacuation zones.
Once settled at Blanding, the team monitored every movement Irma made as the storm passed over the Florida Keys on Sunday morning, Sept. 10; then up the western coast of Florida on Sunday night; and into Monday morning Sept.11.
Today, more than four weeks after landfall, the assessments, and numbers that guided Kirk’s decisions in those hours leading up to, during and immediately after the storm are now telling the story of the JaxStrong team and their work in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
Jacksonville District was and still is, responsible for a steady-state mission of delivering a $500 million annual program. Now, they were tasked with manning a hurricane response and recovery team.
Finding enough of the right people and pulling them away from their day job without missing critical existing stakeholder commitments was no small feat.
More than 300 Corps employees from districts throughout the country have been actively engaged in Florida on any given day, filling positions ranging from power and housing subject matter experts to administrative and logistical
specialists to infrastructure and roofing subject matter experts.
In addition to pulling from the current labor force, the Corps also brought in personnel from its reemployed annuitant cadre; a program made up of retired federal civil service employees who stand ready to provide support during critical times of need just like this one.
With many members of the team having already served their initial 30-day deployment to support the mission, some are returning to the obligations of their home station, while others have extended for an additional 30 days. For those who cannot extend, new team members are arriving as needed to replace them.
In the hours following Irma’s rampage, more than half of the state’s residents were left without power. Collier, Lee, and Monroe Counties in southwestern Florida and the Keys were hit hardest.
The Corps’ temporary power mission was focused on life-saving, life-sustaining and other critical public facilities such as shelters, hospitals, emergency operation centers, waste water and water treatment facilities, and even a prison.
Just ten days after receiving their mission instructions, the temporary power teams had completed 42 emergency power installations at those critical facilities and were already removing generators where local power had been restored.
Comprising the majority of the personnel assigned to the Hurricane Irma mission and led by an elite team of experts from the Corps’ Nashville District, the temporary roofing team was tasked by FEMA to provide assessments for and installation of the signature Blue Roof on homes that qualify. The purpose of the program is to provide a temporary solution and get Florida residents back into their homes as quickly as possible, buying them time while they seek out permanent repairs for their storm-damaged roofs.
Homeowners must sign a Right of Entry form at one of the ROE centers located in more than two dozen counties throughout the state. From there, Corps quality assurance experts assess the damage to determine whether the home qualifies based on a variety of criteria. Once approved, Corps contractors can then install the Blue Roof covering.
As of Oct. 13, Florida residents have signed more than 16,900 ROEs with more than 14,000 of those having already been assessed by the Corps’ temporary roofing team and contractors have installed more than 6,000 Blue Roofs throughout Florida.
Weather continues to be a challenge for installers due to rain and high wind gusts, but the Corps’ roofing team projects most roofs will be complete within 30 days of assessment. As weather conditions and clean-up efforts throughout the impacted areas improve, the number of daily installations is expected to increase.
While the temporary housing mission is a high priority, the process is one of the most challenging.
Temporary housing can be placed on private land to give homeowners a place to stay while they conduct repairs to their storm-damaged home, or placed at existing commercial mobile home parks, which allows the placement of multiple trailers in one location.
One of the biggest challenges in Monroe County, where the temporary homes are needed most, is the availability of locations large enough to fit a single trailer, let alone multiple trailers. Open land is a premium in the Florida Keys, and the small islands do not have the footprint needed to place multiple trailers on one site.
Once a possible site is identified, Corps teams help FEMA determine eligibility by conducting an assessment of the property. Eligibility may depend on structural damage to pre-existing homes, and ensuring that power and water are readily available for trailer installation. Securing water and power is a process that is far from complete in many of the possible locations.
To date, Corps personnel have conducted site assessments of 1,313 sites at commercial parks and private sites at residences. FEMA has final approval authority and oversees the placement of the temporary homes.
Infrastructure Assessment, Water, and Wastewater Management
Infrastructure assessment for water and wastewater facilities is another critical line of effort. Determining the status of water and wastewater treatment plants is critical information that drives decisions. It’s the difference between a resident being able to return home or not. Assessors identify any needs or resources that a facility might require or that it could share with other plants in the area.
For Hurricane Irma, this was a multiagency effort between the Corps, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Rural Water Association, and Florida's Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network.
To date, the assessment and management team has performed approximately 1,500 verbal and 12 on-site field assessments of water and wastewater facilities and an assessment of the Sea Ray Drive Bridge over Sykes Creek in Brevard County.
As a result, 100 percent of the water and wastewater facilities that were initially classified with an unknown status following Hurricane Irma have now been accounted for.
While the Corps did not receive a direct mission assignment from FEMA for debris removal, it did have an emergency debris-clearing mission immediately following the storm. JaxStrong team members cleared approximately 246.5 miles of debris from Florida roadways, providing improved access for first responders. To date, the debris team continues to provide technical assistance in the way of assessments and consultation, especially in the high priority areas of Sarasota, St. Johns, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties.
Ports – Energize Our Economy
One of the Corps’ primary missions is to maintain navigable waterways and harbors. Storms impact these channels, causing shoaling and sinking debris and vessels. USACE must quickly act to identify any impacts to channels, remove any obstacles, and reopen these channels to commercial and military traffic.
Before the approaching storm, the Jacksonville District began coordination with the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, and individual port authorities, ensuring communication links for the District to its 17 deep draft harbors and 20 shallow draft harbors. The District then began to place survey crews throughout the harbors strategically and immediately after the storm passed (within 12-48 hours) these crews went to work. Within 72 hours, all ports were open with restrictions.
Coastal/Storm Risk Management Project Assessments
Coastal resiliency projects are reassessed following significant storms. At FEMA’s request, the Jacksonville District evaluated all non-federal Florida beaches for post-storm damage. The team completed 47 of 47 initial assessments by the third week in September helping to advance the State’s efforts. In partnership with local governments, the Corps helps to protect the economy and the environment of coastal areas by building Coastal Storm Risk Management Projects that reduce the effects of storm threats. Despite the force of Hurricane Irma, these projects served their purpose by reducing damages to coastal infrastructure. The federal investment in nourished beach resiliency helps coastal communities recover faster and return to normalcy.
The Corps also has responsibility for federal beach projects. The Jacksonville District completed 18 Project Implementation reports on damage caused by Hurricane Irma in Florida. If the District receives emergency funding under Public Law 84-99, it will restore the beaches back to pre-storm strength in preparation for future hurricane seasons.
The Jacksonville District, with augmentation from throughout the Corps of Engineers, is proud to serve the citizens of Florida and Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in preparing for, responding to and recovering from severe storm events. This September [and now October] to remember has been an opportunity for this District-plus team to live, serve and fully realize their shared vision as a “Team of Professionals Making Tomorrow Better.”