Three Charleston District employees voluntarily deployed together for 28 days to Puerto Rico in support of the FEMA tasked infrastructure assessment mission after Hurricanes Irma and Maria barreled through the island. While each employee had different assignments in Puerto Rico, they all had one common feeling…gratitude.
“Deploying was a very fulfilling experience,” said Rhonda Bath, the District’s military construction chief. “Being an action officer in Puerto Rico gave me a whole new appreciation for the Corps and our capabilities as an organization. Together, we are helping communities rebuild and it was very gratifying knowing I had a small part in that.”
Bath sat in the Joint Field Office in San Juan and managed the Corps’ infrastructure assessment mission, which provides rapid and detailed structural assessment capabilities and management for a wide array of missions such as electrical, mechanical, geotechnical, structural engineering assessments; urban search & rescue support; and water/wastewater infrastructure assessments and repair after a natural or manmade disaster.
“Day-to-day, I ensured that all taskers, missions, and ad-hoc duties that FEMA requested were relayed to the mission managers and team leaders in the field,” said Bath. “I monitored the inspection team’s process, execution and progress to ensure that everyone stayed on the very aggressive schedule in a challenging environment. I spent a great deal of time reporting to FEMA and the team leaders, I had to report all milestones, progress and accomplishments made in the previous 24 hours and what was expected to be accomplished in the next 24 hours.”
Bath was also responsible for determining the manpower needed to properly execute the missions and, if necessary, requesting additional manpower from FEMA. She helped local officials and organizations write their scopes that they sent to FEMA for execution.
Most of these local groups and officials had never written a scope requesting money or supplies from FEMA,” said Bath. “So I walked them through the process to ensure they were able to get exactly what they needed and that everything was communicated and documented correctly. I enjoyed helping those groups who were in such need.”
When Bath passed on the information and taskers to the Recovery Field Office, it was passed to fellow Charleston District co-worker, David Wilson.
“An easy way to look at the situation was that Rhonda acted as a CEO and my position, as the mission manager, was similar to an operating officer’s role,” said Wilson, a biologist with the regulatory division. “If a tasker or mission needed to be accomplished, Rhonda sent it to me to execute. I would determine how to accomplish that mission with the available resources or make requests if we didn’t have the necessary resources. Then I would assign the task to someone in the field.”
Wilson handled personnel issues, which included overseeing approximately 22 employees, and providing logistical support to the team. Since communication was key in delivering on Corps assignments, he wrote daily SITREPs that went to USACE Commanders and FEMA to keep them updated on the progress of the infrastructure assessment mission as well as briefed the RFO Commander on the progress every afternoon.
“Deploying was a great experience,” said Wilson. “The people of Puerto Rico are resilient and everyone was so welcoming. They knew we were there to help and people actually thanked me. I have never been thanked like that before, it was a really good feeling. It was also interesting to see the progression of recovery. When I first arrived, 10 days after the hurricane, only some sections of our hotel had power and we were eating SpaghettiOs out of a can, but each day stores and restaurants began to open and more places had electricity.”
Ryan Bamberg, a structural engineer for the engineering division and training officer in Puerto Rico, was often on the receiving end of Wilson’s taskers.
“We were tasked with assessing the infrastructure of approximately 1,100 schools and 200 police stations to ensure they were safe. We performed damage assessments for regional airports, ferry terminals and piers/ports and provided cost estimates to fix the damages,” said Bamberg. “My primary job was to train engineers in the Corps and private sector on how to perform structural, mechanical and electrical assessments in the schools and police stations. We had a checklist we used, but some of it was a judgement call so I used examples of what to look for, such as if the ceiling had fallen, or if electrical wires were hanging, or if a tree was on the building, during an assessment.”
After the trained engineers did their assessments, Bamberg provided quality assurance by checking their work to ensure they were implementing the measures he taught and maintaining consistency across the assessments. He also did some of the assessments himself to help keep up the pace of the progress. By the time Bamberg left, more than 500 of the schools and more than 100 of the police stations had been assessed.
“It was fast-paced and everyday was different, but the work was very rewarding,” said Bamberg. “I really enjoyed the school assessments, it got some great media coverage and it was really cool to see the work I was doing have a positive impact on the children of Puerto Rico. Deploying also gave me a greater sense of appreciation for the things I take for granted in Charleston, for example making a phone call to ask a quick question wasn’t always an option in Puerto Rico since cell phones didn’t work. Something that would take a few minutes to do here, would take hours to do there.”
Even though Bath sat at the JFO and Wilson and Bamberg sat at the RFO, they still saw each other frequently and were able to travel to remote Utuado together for a site visit.
“Utuado is approximately 65 miles from San Juan,” said Bath. “Since road conditions were so uncertain we had to take a chinook, it was amazing to see the country from that high vantage point. We inspected a waste water treatment plant and the Soldiers with us handed out Meals-Ready-to-Eat and water to local church that was serving as a distribution center for the community. The community was so grateful for the food and water, it was a very meaningful expedition to Utuado.”
Now that the employees have returned to Charleston, they are settling back into their daily life and normal routines, but they are feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment for the opportunity to make a difference in the recovery of Puerto Rico.