Hawai’i Wildfires: Q&A With the Outgoing ESF#3 Team Leaders

On Aug. 8, wildfires swept across Maui, devastating land and communities and catastrophically damaging the town of Lahaina. In the immediate aftermath, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) arrived to help the state of Hawai’i and Maui County begin the disaster response and recovery process. As a component of that process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was brought in through FEMA Mission Assignment as the lead agency to handle Emergency Support Function #3.

Under the National Response Framework, which establishes a single, comprehensive approach to domestic incident management, ESF3 provides guidelines for federal assistance to local, state, and tribal governments in the context of public works and engineering, including tasks such as debris removal, temporary housing construction, and restoration of critical utilities and facilities.

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Though the local USACE commander of the district where a disaster occurs has responsibility to act under USACE’s own emergency authorities, the day-to-day operations of the Stafford Act response are managed by an ESF3 team leader and assistant team leader who are deployed civilian USACE personnel expertly trained to head these types of response missions. When the response effort began, team leader for the ESF3 Hawai’i wildfires response, Justin Pummell, and assistant team leader, Tonya Dutra, were the first in those positions to serve during this event. When their deployments were ending they offered some insights into their roles and the initial phase of support.

What are your normal roles in USACE and how long have you been with the agency? For each of you, how many disaster responses have you been part of, and is this your first time as overall ESF3 leaders?

Tonya Dutra: I’ve been with USACE for 12 years. Currently I am a project manager in special projects at the Omaha District. In my daily job, I do fuel tank inspection and repair in the special projects section of Omaha District. In my former life, I was an emergency management specialist, so I was in the Emergency Management section of USACE for six years. This is my second “official” full-disaster deployment. I say that because the last one I did was in Puerto Rico, but I was on the tail end of it. We were closing it out and everybody was going home. This is my first time on the very beginning stages; I arrived on day two or three. I have, however, deployed as an ESF3 ATL [assistant team leader] three times prior to this for potential hurricanes. Those storms didn’t happen, though, and I went home each time after about four days.

Justin Pummell: I have been employed by the Corps of Engineers for 22 years. I’m currently the Civil Works business intelligence program manager and assigned to the Institute for Water Resources, and my day job is overseeing a large civil works cloud information technology network that supports major applications like the National Levee Database and the Inland Electronic Navigation Charts. I’ve been involved with emergency management through 25-plus deployments throughout my career. I have recently been promoted to ESF3 team leader this year and been on the ESF3 cadre since 2017. Prior to that, I was the National GIS [Geographic Information System] cadre team leader for emergency management. It’s a formal process to become a team leader and it takes training and deploy- ments to get to that stage.

How would you describe the importance of the relationship between an ESF3 team leader and the assistant team leader?

Pummell: It’s tremendously important. The assistant team leader and the team leader have to be completely synchronized to be successful in this role, given the number of tasks, the number of meetings, and the number of requirements that are asked of us. Tonya and I know what each other are thinking before we’re thinking it!

Did you have much of a relationship before this particular disaster?

Pummell: No, it’s the first time we’ve deployed together.

How do you make this type of relation- ship productive when you’re under such a time crunch?

Pummell: We go through an annual training each year at the Readiness Support Center and that allows us to understand each other’s roles, and we’ve met through that forum multiple times previously. So, we’re not coming in as strangers. Additionally, a team leader serves as an assistant team leader for many years, so the roles and responsibilities are well known.

As an assistant team leader, how do you view your role in terms of what support you want to make sure you’re offering to the team?

Dutra: As an ATL, my job is to support Justin, the team leader, who’s got the primary brunt on their shoulders and to alleviate anything that can be, like the reports, going to meetings that he can’t attend, and taking notes or giving statuses at those meetings if necessary. It’s to help keep things running along smoothly; I can answer questions from people, so he’s not bombarded with everything. We share tasks and it gives me someone experienced to learn the ropes from.

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When the ESF3 for this response was stood up on Aug. 9, how would you describe those first 24 hours and what were the challenges?

Pummell: Usually when you first arrive, you’re asked a lot of questions related to capability. USACE has specific, pre-scripted mission assignments that we often fill, some of which are in the response phase and some of which are in the recovery phase of the disaster. So, given the circumstances, we anticipated we would be requested to do temporary power and debris, and there were a lot of questions about those two particular mission sets: How fast you can get folks out? And what can we do to start planning for those big.mission sets?

And the FEMA Regional Activation Mission Assignment is the kickoff, the first funding that comes in, right?

Pummell: Typically, yes, regional activation and that’s what deploys a team leader and assistant team leader. It also allows us to bring out subject-matter experts and so some of the first we deployed were related to temporary power and debris. ESF3, Public Works and Engineering, often gets tasked with some of the most complex and challenging work. After an emergency event occurs, I am always impressed with what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brings to the table to fulfill those requests and answer the mail for survivors and residents when we are tasked to do something. It keeps the relationship to FEMA and the states strong. The ESF3 community does every- thing it can to support FEMA and states with resolving and working through some of the most complex challenges that occur during an event.

Where have you been located while you have served this deployment?

Pummell: The State of Hawai’i Emergency Operations Center in Honolulu, because we usually integrate directly with the FEMA Incident Management Assistance Team, or IMAT, that is supporting the state in its response efforts. So, we typically go where the IMAT is, and in this case, it’s been the initial operating facility here at the State Emergency Operations Center.

When you started realizing the scope of the devastation, what were your thoughts?

Pummell: When I first arrived, I didn’t have a handle on how big the scope was yet, because it wasn’t fully known at the time how much had been burned and the magnitude of the loss. I anticipated that it would be a large area with significant traumatic effects. I knew I was going to be busy and ESF3 was going to be called upon to deliver critical mission support.

Dutra: I would have to say my preconception before I even came was based on experience I had when I was in the Sacramento District dealing with the tail end of wildfire debris missions there. So, I kind of came with the assumption that there was going to be a debris mission and it was going to last a long time. As far as how large and how impactful it was, it didn’t occur to me until probably day three when I felt like I was getting into the rhythm. I watched the news and started seeing what they were showing and correlated it to the meetings we were going to and the things that we were talking about, like how big it was and what we were going to potentially be asked to do. So, it took a while, and I don’t know, without actually being in Maui, if I could ever understand the full scope of the impacts to the people who live there.

As the month progressed, what have been some of the most challenging and most rewarding moments of the response for each of you?

Pummell: This is a very meaningful experience to be able to contribute to where I live.

Dutra: I think the biggest challenge in general, and not just for this event, but for all events for ESF are learning personalities and working with various types of people. And for me, remembering who everyone is. You run into so many people in such a short amount of time, and you have to learn how to work with them and their personality differences. Just being here in Hawai’i is totally different for me as it is for many of the people who deploy to support the mission. I think the biggest reward is being able to hand over, to those who are replacing us, missions that are well on their way to being accomplished.

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With the rotational nature of the deployment cycle, how do you ensure proper turnover and that you are able to meet staffing needs?

Pummell: We make sure there’s overlap with the people we are transitioning with, and we also prepare numerous documents to let them continue with the baton and run with it. So, that includes having them involved in meetings and on email traffic well before they arrive. We also prepare transition memorandums to help them get a good sense of what’s been taking place, and once they are here, going to meetings together, introducing them to partners, and clearly explaining the challenges that are before them.

How far out are the deployments projected?

Pummell: The national program will plan at this point for the rest of 2023.

What about first-time deployers?

Dutra: You have to remember that we were all a first-deployer once upon a time and to use patience and understanding when somebody asks you a question that you probably heard 20 times already and think they should just know. Because, you don’t know until you’ve been there and you’ve done it, and you’ve been told. So, patience and tolerance are the name of the game.

What advice would you offer your in-coming team leader replacements?

Pummell: Listen first and be mindful of the unique cultural considerations here in Hawai’i.

Dutra: I have to agree with Justin. The culture in Hawai’i is very important to the people of Hawai’i, and that has a huge impact on how things are done and how we plan for our missions to be accomplished. I think that is something anybody coming in needs to be very cognizant of. Mainlanders may have a tendency to just take things for granted. Everywhere is different. We don’t always think the same or have the same behavior patterns. Doing some research definitely helps and being open to any input you can get from people who call it home.

What has it meant personally to be able to lend your efforts to this disaster response?

Dutra: I would say I hope everything I have done here leaves a positive impact.

Pummell: When I have responded previously for USACE, it’s usually to an area that’s not home. In this case, it is home, so there’s that much more motivation to do everything I can and to assist residents and neighbors. For me, that’s the most important piece of this.

This interview is featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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