Soon after the devastating wildfires that struck Maui Aug. 8, first responder crews from around the nation deployed to the island. In a strong showing of national, regional, and local support, personnel from the Hawaii National Guard, U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined the response mission. Among those responding from USACE was Jennifer Kist, a geographer with the Charleston District.
Kist did not hesitate to answer the call for USACE emergency management personnel to deploy, exemplifying the Army’s core value of selfless service. Arriving in Maui, Kist immediately got to work streamlining information flow to make USACE’s support to Maui County more efficient.
“I was developing and creating tools to manage information so it can freely flow and be automatically pulled,” said Kist. “It means a lot to me to enable our engineers and others to do their jobs in a more efficient way. I was able to automate a lot of the bureaucratic burdens, allowing the team to focus on providing temporary power to wells and other critical public facilities.”
Kist is the Geospatial Coordinator for Charleston District. Her regular job entails leading a team of geographers who analyze, interpret and catalogue data for use by all of Charleston District’s projects and mission areas. She also runs the engineering common operating picture, or eCOP, which is a USACE headquarters project.
During a disaster response, the job involves just one mission area but data in an emergency is a 24/7 occupation. There is an incredible amount of information collected that needs to be logged, organized, reported and distributed. It takes time to do all of this, which can pull engineers away from the response itself. The results of Kist’s work reduce the workload and time it takes for engineers and team members to collect, organize and report data so they can get back into the field. In many scenarios data can even be streamed in real time from the field or the disaster site back to the emergency operations center, USACE headquarters or even directly to response partners such as FEMA.
More than 50 USACE personnel from around the nation joined Kist in the response with the same priority: the life, health, and safety of all affected by the wildfires. USACE received several FEMA mission assignments including national activation, regional activation, debris management, debris execution (personal property debris removal), temporary emergency power and critical public facilities.
The teams have installed 20 generators to provide temporary power for critical public facilities like hospitals, shelters, and pump stations; have completed assessments to provide temporary facilities for an elementary school, responsible for 700 students; and have begun clearing household hazardous materials from Maui residents’ properties in coordination with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Kist and the team found themselves playing a very important role when President Biden came to survey the destruction caused by the fires. They installed backup power to the civic center, where the President addressed the people of Lahaina, by installing two generators to provide air conditioning throughout the building. In recognition of their work, Kist and others each received a certificate of appreciation from the White House communications agency.
Among the destruction, there is one glimmer of hope for a well-known symbol in Lahaina. The 150-year-old Banyan tree, which draws in people from around the world, still shows signs of life. Though its leaves were scorched, the trunk survived. After much work from the locals, who see the banyan tree as a symbol of their town and resiliency, the tree has sprouted new roots.
The road to recovery for Lahaina will be long and difficult, but with people like Jennifer Kist, USACE be there to support the life, health and safety of all who were affected.