September is National Preparedness month, which is intended to raise awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies across the country. Although the month of September is dedicated to this important observance, at the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Debris Planning and Response Team stands ready every day in case disaster strikes.
When a disaster occurs, whether natural or manmade, and the state in which it occurred is not equipped to handle the response and cleanup afterwards, the governor may declare a State of Emergency, which is needed prior to a request for federal assistance. The president then may declare a federal disaster, which allows for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to access federal funding for the cleanup. FEMA contracts with USACE Planning and Response Teams to execute the cleanup mission after a disaster.
“The Debris Planning and Response Team is … a district-sourced team of individuals that goes forward when municipalities request assistance with debris removal … during natural disasters,” said Rick Weixelbaum, national emergency preparedness program manager and natural disaster program manager at the Kansas City District. “When a state requests federal assistance, that’s when the President picks up the phone and calls FEMA. USACE is basically FEMA’s contractor.”
Within USACE, there are seven different planning and response team types that are part of FEMA’s federal response plan. These include critical public facilities, debris management, emergency power, infrastructure assessment, safety and occupational health, temporary housing and temporary roofing.
Across the USACE enterprise, there are multiple planning and response teams within each type. Currently, there are seven Debris Planning and Response Teams within USACE dedicated to debris management, the newest of which is located at the Kansas City District.
“In addition to the Kansas City Debris Planning and Response Team, USACE has six additional Debris Planning and Response Teams strategically disbursed throughout the enterprise in Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California, Fort Worth, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, Vicksburg, Mississippi and Baltimore, Maryland,” said Weixelbaum.
Formed in June 2021, the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team can deploy to a disaster area in the continental U.S. within hours, should they be called to do so. On a deployment, the team is responsible for the project management and technical monitoring of debris removal.
“We are 14 [people] deep on the primary team and then I’ve probably got about that many on the alternate team,” said Weixelbaum. “On any given mission, I’ll source from both the primary and the alternate team to have one full team. We are ready, willing and able to deploy wherever we are called at a moment’s notice.”
While no USACE planning and response team is any more important than another, debris removal is perhaps the most visible in the aftermath of a disaster.
“To see what the task looks like when you get there and then when you leave, the before and after is just amazing,” said Weixelbaum. “Just looking at the physical nature of what debris removal does to the landscape … it’s very visible.”
More than just removing debris
For Weixelbaum, disaster and emergency preparedness are part of his everyday duties at USACE. But for the other members of the Kansas City District’s Debris Planning and Response Team, volunteering for the team provides opportunities they might not normally encounter at their day jobs with USACE.
Jim Workman, a section chief in the Kansas City District’s military branch, has been part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team since it was formed in 2021. But Workman has deployed with other USACE planning and response teams to various natural disasters for several years. He has deployed in response to wildfires, floods and hurricanes. His most memorable deployment was as part of a temporary power team, which responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
“One of the most rewarding [deployments] was Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” said Workman. “These people had been without power for months and you turn the power on and crank up the music and … it’s a party. They were really celebrating. So that was a really rewarding deployment.”
Although the atmosphere in Puerto Rico had the feeling of a party after power was restored, Workman emphasized the long days and hard work that are required when deployed as part of a planning and response team. For those who might be interested in volunteering for the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team Workman suggests they give it a shot.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s a great opportunity. Try it, if it’s not for you, that’s fine,” said Workman. “Rick [Weixelbaum] and everyone else involved, we are team people so we will help you along and make sure you are successful.”
According to Workman, there are many benefits of being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team. He enjoys the opportunity to travel to different places across the country, work on projects that are outside of his day-to-day duties and meet people from all over USACE. But his favorite thing about being part of the Debris Planning and Response Team is the satisfaction that comes from helping others in times of need.
“It’s the satisfaction that you get from helping the people that have been devastated,” said Workman. “Just getting the citizens back to their day-to-day life that has been taken away from them, that is a great sense of accomplishment.”
Like Workman, Weixelbaum acknowledges the many benefits and unique opportunities that being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team provides to its members. But like Workman, Weixelbaum’s favorite thing about the team is having the chance to help people during times of disaster and emergency.
“The mission is very rewarding if you have the personality that wants to help others recover to get them back to pre-incident way of life. The Debris Planning and Response Team is out there … with the survivors of these incidents, so there is a lot of return on investment for folks if that’s what they like to do,” said Weixelbaum. “Who doesn’t want to help people?”
There is only one maximum security prison in the U.S. that houses male U.S. military members that have been convicted of crimes or violations under the Uniform Code of Justice. That prison is located at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and is known as the United States Disciplinary Barracks.
The United States Disciplinary Barracks is part of a larger Military Corrections Complex located at Fort Leavenworth, which is comprised of the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and several support and administrative buildings. The United States Disciplinary Barracks is the facility which houses individuals sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, and the Joint Regional Correctional Facility is the facility which houses individuals sentenced to less than 10 years in prison.
As the world’s premiere public engineering organization, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for construction on U.S. military installations across the country. The Kansas City District’s area of responsibility covers five major military installations, to include Fort Leavenworth. That means when the Military Corrections Complex needs repairs and improvements, the Kansas City District answers the call.
The district is no stranger to constructing military corrections facilities at Fort Leavenworth. The district built the United States Disciplinary Barracks in 2002, and the Joint Regional Correctional Facility in 2010, replacing the historic United States Disciplinary Barracks that had been used since its construction in 1875. While the United States Disciplinary Barracks and Joint Regional Correctional Facility are much younger in age compared to the historic prison, they are due for some repairs and improvements.
“[the Kansas City District is] doing renovations on each of the prisons, as well as the miscellaneous support buildings,” said Jeffery Jensen, project engineer and contracting officer’s representative for the project.
Renovations include replacing the roofs, parts of the HVAC systems, fire alarm system, renovating the showers and making improvements to flooring in the dining facility. The list of renovations and improvements are not anything out of the ordinary for the Kansas City District, but working in an occupied corrections facility provides a unique set of challenges.
“[The United States Disciplinary Barracks and Joint Regional Correctional Facility] are active facilities,” said Maj. Stanley Kareta, former chief of staff, Kansas City District, and former Fort Leavenworth Resident Office project engineer. “We have to move in and around the occupants, the prisoners and the guards … that also means we are limited in how we phase the work.”
Security at the facilities is a top priority. Every contractor must go through a background check and pass a security checkpoint prior to entering the facilities. There is also an extensive contraband policy.
“The biggest thing is security,” said Jensen. “It’s the only thing that’s different than working on any other project.”
Although security and safety of all those involved are a top priority, renovations to the active facilities also require a high degree of synchronization between the agencies involved in the project.
“It’s normal construction work but being an active facility, you’ve got to have a lot of coordination between the facility, the Department of Public Works, USACE and the contractor,” said Kareta. “There’s just a lot of extra layers that go into it being an occupied building versus an unoccupied building. But once you build those relationships, you know who you can go to to get ahead of any issues.”
Construction on the project began in October 2020 and is scheduled to be completed later this year. The total cost of the project is $39.5 million. To some, these renovations might not seem to be that important or noteworthy. But for Jensen and his team, this is a high-stakes project.
“We have a whole bunch of prisoners and we have nowhere else to put them,” said Jensen. “We directed that these people have to be here, so we have to take care of them. This is a no fail mission.”
Military working dogs might look like your average pet, but they are highly trained animals used for security on military installations and in deployed environments. The Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is currently working on the planning, design and construction of a new kennel facility for the working dogs of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron located at McConnell Air Force Base, or MAFB, in Wichita, Kansas. The current kennels were constructed several decades ago and require much-needed updates.
“[The current kennel facility is] just antiquated,” said Gary Shirley, military programs project manager with the Kansas City District, “it doesn’t meet the current requirements for housing working dogs.”
Like the training of military working dogs, the kennel facilities that house the dogs must meet strict requirements that are mandated by the Department of Defense, or DoD, and the U.S. Air Force. The DoD requires the use of a standard design template but allows for modifications to accommodate each specific facility. For example, the design for the new facility at MAFB will take into account sun and wind exposure, among other things.
“We take into consideration sun angles for the outdoor kennels so the dogs aren’t sitting out there in the late afternoon getting hot, or [ensure the dogs will not] get all northerly wind exposure,” said Shirley. “The design of the kennels themselves is absolutely critical.”
Shirley and his team understood that the design of the new facility needed to accommodate the specific conditions at MAFB, not only for the dogs but also for their handlers. The team ensured that the handlers of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron were part of the design process so that the new facility meets the needs of the unit.
Tech. Sgt. Noah Hyatt, kennel master for the 22nd Security Forces Squadron, joined the team in November 2022, and his first thought when he was asked to provide feedback on the new kennel design was to improve quality of life for the dogs.
“When I first took on this project and saw the kennel … the first thing I thought of was how to make the dogs more effective because without the dogs, there’s no handlers,” said Hyatt. “So first we take care of the dogs, giving them the space they need, giving them the ability to rest… Operationally, it will make things much easier.”
Overall, the current facility is insufficient for the handlers and the dogs who work there. According to Shirley, the current facility doesn’t meet nearly a third of the current DoD requirements. The Kansas City District is working to ensure that problem is not repeated with the new facility.
“The military working dogs have a very strict regimen that the trainers and the dogs have to follow,” said Shirley. “[The design staff] go through a great deal of care to make sure that these facilities are designed to generate the least amount of stress on the dogs.”
MAFB’s mission is primarily air refueling, a vital part of the Air Force’s capability. The 22nd Security Forces Squadron dog handlers support that mission in many different ways.
“We support [MAFB’s mission] through securing the installation and law enforcement and conducting security patrols,” Hyatt said. “Whenever we get different types of resources coming in on the ground, we use our explosives dogs to sweep the area that crews go into. We also deploy our dogs.”
With projects like this, USACE is able to remove barriers that inhibit servicemembers from performing a necessary job to ensure national security. The handlers take a lot of pride in their work, not only in the security they provide to the installation, but in training the dogs to be the best they can be.
“I think it’s the satisfaction that comes out of training the dogs,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Espinoza Stewart, military working dog trainer. “Training dog teams and [certifying] them … I know, hey, I was able to train that team and put them out there, and now they’re in the fight.”
These working dogs are highly trained and highly skilled. The handlers of the 22nd Security Forces Squadron understand better than most, the duty and sacrifice that is asked of military working dogs. The respect that exists between the working dogs and their handlers is evident.
“You know, we talk about mental health of people in the military all the time, but it’s huge in the dogs as well and you can tell,” said Hyatt. “When dogs are in a better kennel environment, they don’t have these issues.”
By working with the handlers directly during the design phase, Shirley and his team were able to understand the importance of this project.
“This is about the animals,” said Shirley. “They needed this pretty badly.”
The new kennel facility, which is currently in the design phase, will be built from the ground up and cost about $5.3 million. The project has an anticipated completion date in 2026.
At first glance, the new rock, also called riprap, that has been placed along the banks of Harlan County Lake, Nebraska, might not look like much. However, this seemingly insignificant riprap plays a critical role not only in the mitigation of further shoreline erosion, but also in the protection and preservation of two cultural sites at the lake.
Over 11,000 feet of riprap was placed along the shoreline of Harlan County Lake earlier this year. After the 2019 flood, areas of the lake’s shoreline had eroded 50 to 100 feet, with some areas having eroded as much as 400 feet since 1985. Even without experiencing flood conditions, the lake’s shoreline is susceptible to erosion.
“Harlan County Lake has highly erodible soils and frequent high winds, which is a bad combination for having erosion problems,” said Tom Zikmund, Harlan County Lake operations project manager.
These conditions make for an even worse combination when the shoreline is the only protection between the lake’s water and the two cultural sites. These cultural sites are known as White Cat Village, located on the south side of the lake, and Tipover Cove, located on the north side of the lake.
Harlan County Lake received funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, or BIL, to make the necessary repairs to protect these important cultural sites from further shoreline erosion. The project started in October 2022 and was completed in January 2023.
“To my knowledge there has never been anything done like this in the past to protect our cultural resources at Harlan County [Lake],” said Zikmund.
A Window to the Past
To fully appreciate the importance of these riprap projects, it’s important to understand what these cultural sites represent. White Cat Village was first recorded in the 1940s by Nebraskan archeologists. However, this site was well known to locals before it became official record. The site marks an 18th century village that was occupied by the descendants of today’s Plains Apache Tribes. Home to the remains of houses, fire pits and storage pits, White Cat Village is an important cultural and historical site to the Plains Apache Tribes, who originally inhabited this area.
Like White Cat Village, Tipover Cove is another important cultural and historical site located at Harlan County Lake. Unlike White Cat Village, Tipover Cove is significantly older and contains several sites that were occupied over the course of thousands of years. The cultural sites of Tipover Cove were used by the descendants of the Pawnee Nation because of its location where Tipover Creek once met the Republican River.
Both White Cat Village and Tipover Cove are rich in cultural significance and history to the descendants of those that originally inhabited these areas, as well as for present day Harlan County Lake. However, these cultural sites are just two of over 156 recorded cultural sites at the lake.
“There are undoubtedly more sites in un-surveyed areas [of Harlan County Lake],” said Gina Powell, archeologist with the Kansas City District. “This [number of cultural sites] is actually quite low compared to the rest of [the Kansas City District’s] lakes.”
Sites like White Cat Village and Tipover Cove provide a window into the past and can teach us a lot about our history. Protecting and preserving these invaluable cultural and historical sites is an important mission for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kansas City District.
“Erosion is a problem at our lakes and when there are National Register of Historic Places, or NRHP-eligible or listed sites that can be protected, they should be,” said Powell.
It Takes a Village
The National Historic Preservation Act, or NHPA, of 1966 requires all federal agencies to consider their actions on historic properties. These historic properties are considered cultural resources that are eligible for, or listed on, the NRHP.
“As a federal agency, we [USACE] are required to provide stewardship to cultural resource sites on our lands,” said Tim Meade, archeologist with the Kansas City District. “The erosion control was undertaken to prevent damage from the erosive effects at [Harlan County Lake.]”
USACE archeologists are not the only ones who play an important role in protecting these cultural sites and resources. Within USACE, archeologists work closely with the lake project offices and park rangers who work on the land surrounding the lakes every day. At the Kansas City District, archeologists review projects for potential site damage, make plans to mitigate damage, monitor existing sites, survey for unrecorded sites and train park rangers to observe and record sites and artifacts.
“The [park] rangers are our eyes and ears on the ground,” said Powell. “They do an excellent job helping us care for our cultural resources.”
Outside the district, USACE archeologists often work with local, state and Tribal organizations and agencies to ensure cultural resources remain protected. For the riprap projects at Harlan County Lake, USACE worked with the Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office and the Pawnee Nation to ensure the work would provide appropriate protection.
While these federally protected cultural sites are full of fascinating history, it is important to remember that they are neither open, nor accessible, to the public.
“Digging for and/or collecting artifacts on federal land is illegal and people who do it can face fines and jail time,” said Powell.
History buffs are encouraged to visit the Harlan County Lake Visitor’s Center to learn more about these amazing cultural resources and others like them. If someone finds an artifact at one of the Kansas City District’s 18 lakes, they can record the artifact's location by taking a picture on their phone and informing a park ranger. As for the protection that the new riprap at Harlan County Lake provides, Zikmund and his team hope they can continue to preserve the history of the area for future generations.
“This [riprap project] protects [Harlan County Lake’s] cultural resources for years to come,” said Zikmund. “This really is a neat project.”
Imagine if you were told that a new software platform could save you 40% of the time you currently spend on administrative tasks at work. What could you do with that extra time? That is the exciting question that many within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might be asking themselves when a new construction management platform is released to the enterprise.
The Technology Modernization Office, or TMO, a branch of the Construction Management Innovation Office within USACE Headquarters, is working hard to develop and deliver a new construction management platform. The new platform will be designed to foster a more efficient, collaborative working environment by streamlining and modernizing current construction management processes.
The new construction management platform will replace the Resident Management System, or RMS for short, which is the platform currently being used by USACE and its contractor partners. RMS is the program by which USACE and contractor partners communicate with each other throughout the course of a construction project.
By replacing RMS with a new, more modern platform, the TMO hopes to streamline how USACE projects are completed by improving collaboration among the entire project team including external partners. This would, in turn, improve workflow efficiency related to the entire construction management process.
“To me, one of the really cool parts of this project is that it will not just be innovating the things we’re delivering, but the process by which we deliver projects,” said Alexandra Henderson Connors, construction management technology modernization manager, who works out of the Kansas City District in Kansas City, Missouri.
A relatively new branch of the Construction Management Innovation Office, the TMO is still in the early stages of design and development for the new construction management platform. The replacement platform has a projected release date to the USACE enterprise of 2025. The work being done by the TMO located in the Kansas City District will have long-lasting benefits for the entire enterprise and our mission.
But replacing RMS is just the tip of the iceberg for the TMO. The team will continue to manage projects and oversee initiatives focused on increasing construction quality and efficiency.
“The platform is really the ground level that allows us to bring in all of these other innovations … it’s that first step to be able to continue to innovate … and then we can start to do all of these other really cool things,” said Henderson Connors.
Long-term, the Construction Management Innovation Office and the TMO have a plan to continue to innovate by focusing on construction management technology, research and development. Innovating now and into the future, USACE aims to stay competitive with the private construction industry.
The TMO hopes its innovations will strengthen USACE partnerships across the nation and around the world, maintaining its reputation as a trusted federal partner. With a focus on the intersection of people, process and technology, modernizing the process by which USACE completes its mission will serve to strengthen current partnerships and build new, lasting partnerships in the future.
“These systems will showcase USACE’s commitment to keeping up with technology that works for project delivery staff, not against them,” said Darrick Godfrey, USACE Headquarters senior construction engineer.
While the prospect of strengthening and establishing new external partnerships is an added bonus, USACE leadership acknowledges that improving construction management processes is critical to the mission and hopes its dedication to industry excellence will attract new talent and retain existing talent.
“If we are open to new ideas, exploring ways of finding new processes and technology that will enhance tried and true USACE processes … there is no limit to where our digital transformation journey will lead,” said Godfrey, “and we might just have fun doing it.”
For more information about a career with the TMO or USACE, visit Careers and Employment with the Kansas City District (army.mil).