JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Apr. 21, 2022) – Two years later, and still in the throes of a global pandemic, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District Jacksonville District continues to be at the forefront of the COVID-19 fight.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) mission request to conduct facility assessments for potential COVID-19 hospital expansion efforts in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands arrived, Jacksonville District Emergency Management Branch Chief drafted a plan to support the request.
As you may recall, this wasn't the first time the district answered when FEMA came knocking.
In 2020, looking for assistance with alternate care facilities and assessments within our district as COVID-19 positive cases were surging at a pace that state-wide hospitals couldn't handle, FEMA reached out to the district for help.
One such effort was the Miami Beach Convention Center Alternate Care Facility build-out that brought the district onto the national stage, front and center, of the newly emerging pandemic fight.
The team of volunteers assessed the feasibility of the facility and constructed the convention center build-out in record time. A feat that is still astounding, a two-week time frame to turn 246,000 square feet of convention center space into a working hospital.
When this request came in to help in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Wilkinson and the team had the experience needed to get the proverbial ball rolling and quickly assembled an assessment team to send to St. Croix.
By reaching out to the district's engineering and construction divisions, Wilkinson was able to amass a team of some of the best and brightest engineers to deploy to the Caribbean Island to work with an interagency team led by FEMA.
Supported by Johann Sasso, Emergency Management Branch's Antilles Office Natural Disaster Program Manager, the team of Jorge Rivera, Hector Ortiz, and Ramon Pacheco raised their hands to volunteer and brought along their knowledge in the structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering fields.
On Jan. 21, 2022, the trio of engineers started preparing for deployment to "assist FEMA's Facility Expansion Assessment Team with technical engineering expertise to support the territory's ability to expand their existing facilities by increasing bed space," noted Sasso.
Touching down in St. Croix on Jan. 24, the team met with FEMA and received a brief on the top priorities and the facilities' expansion course of action.
Taking this information, Ortiz, Pacheco, and Rivera prepared a checklist and report template used in the coming days as they progressed through the assessment mission.
Their focus covered many areas, such as structural and utility conditions, potable water systems, pumps and cisterns, heating and air conditioning, electrical systems, substations, fire suppression, medical gas distribution, and water heater systems, as well as telephone, communications systems and wireless internet capability and connectivity.
It would be no easy task, but the Jacksonville District team was up for the challenge.
The following morning, on Jan. 25, the team went to work. First on the list for an assessment was the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center, a 188-bed facility that, according to its official social media site, is the only safety-net hospital on the island of St. Croix.
Upon arrival, the Jacksonville District team met with FEMA representatives and the facility's principal staff to discuss the situation and actual needs of the hospital.
The team performed assessments inside and around the hospital grounds for areas that could be used as surge capacity if there were an influx of COVID-19 positive patients.
Three prospective western shelter outdoor locations were identified and assessed at the facility:
- The Viya parking lot
- Open space next to the hospital cafeteria
- An open space between the hospital north and the Virgin Islands Cardiac Center
The team continued to assess the hospital's main cafeteria and then progressed to the facility's north side care center to check their capabilities for expansion.
Rounding out the assessments at this location, the team inspected a storage room at the Virgin Islands Cardiac Center (VICC), a 24,000 square foot, two-story annex facility located on the north side of the JFL hospital; current use is for non-COVID 19 patients.
As part of their continued support to the requested facility expansion mission, Rivera, Ortiz, and Pacheco moved their focus to the LTC L.A. Jackson Armory's National Guard Regional Training Institute.
This two-story building, constructed in 2009, had barracks space on the first floor and classrooms, a dining facility, and admin spaces on the second floor.
They inspected the facility for possible build-out for electrical, structural, and mechanical capabilities.
Concluding all requested facility assessments that FEMA and the local government identified as potential expansion sites, the team worked to determine their findings and place recommendations on paper.
A mere four days after arriving on the island, the team departed after completing the assessments requested in St. Croix. They returned to their home base in Puerto Rico to finalize reports of the seven assessed areas.
The team's recommendations for the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and the surrounding area were the hospital's north facility would not be recommended because the building was not operational and the main cafeteria lacked a fire protection system.
The Virgin Islands Cardiac Center storage room lacked fire protection and could not be recommended. However, the open spaces outside, next to the hospital cafeteria, and between the north and the cardiac center were recommended.
The team advised that, if used, both areas would need all utilities provided due to being outdoors. The additional bed capacity would depend upon the configuration of the alternate care facility.
The National Guard location was given the green light and was recommended for an additional 24 beds as it had checked nearly all boxes needed to convert the facility.
The submitted reports with recommendations will aid the local government officials to choose the best course of action in expanding hospital capacity to care for the citizens of St. Croix that become ill from COVID-19 in the future.
"Our team helped the people of St. Croix by conducting the necessary structural, mechanical, and electrical inspections of the sites recommended its use as additional treatment areas for COVID-19 patients," Rivera noted.
The Jacksonville district team's goal, Rivera continued, was to "ensure that the facilities were in the adequate conditions for people to be safe while receiving medical attention."
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended that three of the seven evaluated areas were suitable for hospital expansions, which will enable the U.S. Virgin Island government to increase capacity by up to 48 beds, therefore, saving lives," explained Sasso.
Wilkinson summed up the mission by stating, "We strive as a team to provide the absolute best we have to offer to make a positive difference in the lives of those who face difficult times. This is a unified district effort led by a small team of professionals comprising the Emergency Management branch that relies heavily on the expertise and selflessness of district volunteers willing to sacrifice their day-to-day jobs and commit time away from their families to support the nation when in need."
Our Caribbean neighbor to the south needed our expertise, and our team rose to the occasion. These selfless volunteers took time away from their families to answer the call, keeping Jacksonville District at the forefront of the COVID-19 global pandemic fight.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District on the district’s website at www.saj.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JacksonvilleDistrict and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JaxStrong.