Every year, June 1st rolls around and people along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard collectively begin holding their breath and don’t let it out until November 30th. For this half of the year, hurricane season is in full swing.
These months are considered the “best conditions” for a hurricane to form. However, the Charleston District prepares for hurricane season all year long, planning and training for who would respond to any disaster and what their roles would be.
The District’s Emergency Management Branch only has three full-time employees, however there are currently 30 trained District personnel on standby around the state that have volunteered to serve in various roles to complete any USACE authority missions and response/recovery missions given by FEMA.
Each person has their own story as to why they volunteer. Some just want to help, some want the overtime hours, but some are drawn to it because of a personal story. One of those people is Tommy Fennel. Fennel is the Conway Regulatory Field Office chief, but serves as a liaison officer between the District and Horry and Georgetown Counties during a mission. As a life-long resident of South Carolina, Fennel has experienced devastation from many storms.
“I was a senior in high school when Hurricane Hugo slammed into the coast in September 1989,” said Fennel. “We lived in a rural area and were without electricity for almost four weeks. The fact that our home was still standing amidst all the rubble and debris still amazes me.”
So after Fennel joined the District and learned about the Corps’ emergency management mission, he volunteered for the liaison officer position. Since then, he’s had the opportunity to be part of response and recovery efforts from major storms, such as the recent Tropical Storm Joaquin and Hurricane Matthew.
“Having lived through several storms, I understood the shock and emotional experience of being displaced or in need after a major disaster and wanted to share my abilities and expertise by being one of the first people to put my boots on the ground and do my part to expedite recovery efforts and, hopefully, lift the spirits of those in need,” said Fennel.
Ryan Bamberg, structural engineer, had similar feelings when he joined the Infrastructure Assessment Planning and Response Team. He also grew up on the east coast and experienced devastation from many hurricanes and wanted to put his knowledge to good use. Last year, Bamberg spent several weeks in Puerto Rico assessing the viability of buildings and schools after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
“A big draw to come work for the District was the fact that USACE is FEMA’s main go-to agency in the event of a natural disaster,” said Bamberg. “It’s rewarding to see your efforts and skillset have a positive, and almost instant, impact on a local community.”
Colton Bowles, plan formulator, serves as a local government liaison in times of disaster. As an LGL, he has to deploy within six hours of being called and serves to expedite missions by improving communications between local, state and tribal governments to the federal government. During the recovery efforts from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, Bowles was deployed in Florida for 42 weeks.
“I quickly realized that they are dealing with issues regarding life and safety and how serious they took their jobs,” said Bowles. “Our missions impact communities and subsequently lives by assisting with recovery and preparation for the next event. The technical issues that arise with infrastructure recovery and resiliency has forced me to expand my knowledge base. Despite the sacrifices (you eat a lot of meals by yourself and I was in Florida so long I think my dogs forgot me), I would not relinquish my experiences for anything.”
In the last three years, the Charleston District has deployed 50 people to Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and throughout South Carolina as part of recovery efforts from major storms. These stories are just a few from the dedicated volunteers who step up during a disaster situation. The District never wants to see an emergency situation, but the District’s volunteers stand ready if needed.