The wind-driven wildfires that devastated Maui left elementary students in the historic town of Lahaina without an elementary school.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went into action after receiving a mission assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 13 to design and oversee the installation of modular buildings for the temporary elementary school in Lahaina.

"The temporary replacement campus for King Kamehameha III Elementary will be critical in providing our students and staff with a sense of normalcy and a solid foundation for learning and recovery," said Hawai’i State Department of Education Superintendent Keith Hayashi.

In support of the State of Hawai‘i and the state Department of Education, USACE is providing technical assistance, engineering expertise and construction management for the construction of the temporary campus for students of King Kamehameha III elementary school who were displaced by the wildfires that damaged and rendered the school unusable.

A team of USACE and local leaders meet in the Napili-Honokowai area of Maui Aug. 31 to assess a site for possible use as a temporary school. A school is needed for approximately 700 elementary school students who lost their school to the Hawaii wildfires. Members of the USACE Critical Public Facilities team look over a conceptual layout Aug. 31 while conducting a site assessment on Maui to assist the State of Hawai'i in planning for a temporary school following the wildfires in Lahaina that occurred Aug. 8. (U.S. Army photo by Joseph Paul Bruton)

“This has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects I have ever worked on,” said Elizabeth McCarty, mission manager, USACE Critical Public Facilities Team. “As a former teacher, this mission immediately tugged on my heartstrings.”

One of the first steps was to obtain a contractor who could complete the work within the project parameters. A request for proposal was sent out Oct. 16. USACE organized a site visit with contractors and their sub-contractors to review the site Oct. 22. Proposals were received Oct. 26 and were evaluated for the lowest price technically acceptable offer.

Pono Aina Management, LLC, an 8(a) Native Hawaiian Organization, based out of Waianae, Hawai'i, was awarded a base contract of $53.7 million on Nov. 4 to construct a temporary elementary school campus in Lahaina and was given a Notice to Proceed on Nov. 20.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Recovery Field Office Commander Col. Jess Curry from the Rock Island District and USACE Hawai‘i Wildfires Critical Public Facilities Mission Manager Elizabeth McCarty from the Galveston District address members of the Hawai‘i Finance Committee Oct. 26 regarding USACE plans for construction of a temporary school campus in the Lahaina community. The campus will serve as an interim replacement following the loss of the King Kamehameha III Elementary School in the Aug. 8 wildfires. COURTESY PHOTO

“Knowing that many of the men and women working on this project were directly impacted by the fires makes it even more special,” McCarty said. “I am very proud to stand next to my entire team, my new extended ohana, as the school rises.”

Pono Aina Management and their subcontractors, Goodfellow Brothers, Diversity Resources Group and Willscot immediately went to work. Clearing and grubbing of the site began the day the notice to proceed was issued and was completed Nov. 22. Cutting and grading, which began Nov. 21 is still being completed. Modular units were ordered and are being sent from Oahu, Washington and California with the first units anticipated on-site the first week of December.

"Responding to this crisis has been a collaborative effort with our federal, state, county and community partners,” Hayashi said. “We appreciate the experience and leadership that the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers brings as they guide and oversee construction of this temporary school to serve our Lāhainā community.”

USACE Galveston District is responsible for contract management and project oversite with support from emergency personnel from multiple districts across the globe.

The handover of the temporary school to the Department of Education for furnishing and installation of telecommunication equipment is anticipated to be by the end of February 2024.

“My USACE teammates, the County of Maui personnel, the Department of Education and the contractors all work so well together,” said McCarty.  “Learning more about the people of Maui and thU.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors prepare a site for construction of a new temporary elementary school campus for the Lahaina, Hawai'ieir culture is something that I will take with me forever.”

people survey land

Shelter is a basic human need that is crucial for survival. Providing shelter for victims after disasters helps to establish a sense of normalcy for the individuals and communities who have been affected.

Providing temporary housing involves a coordinated effort by various organizations to provide safe and secure accommodations for people who have been displaced.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received a $1.9 million Federal Emergency Management Agency mission assignment Oct. 28 to provide conceptual design for temporary housing sites.

man with survey equipment
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, temporary housing, mission specialist, Anne Wurtenberger and mission manager Jeffery Mucclick visit with surveyor Stephen Caldwell (pictured here) at a proposed temporary housing site map. (U.S. Army photo by Brigida I. Sanchez)

Once a design is approved, USACE will prepare the sites for FEMA to install the units. The units will house those displaced by the Aug. 8 wildfires that destroyed more than 2,000 properties on Maui.

Working alongside FEMA, USACE will prepare pads, provide plans, specifications, and construction management activities associated with the emergency temporary housing mission.

There are currently six temporary housing planning response teams throughout USACE district offices in Huntington, West Virginia; Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Huntsville, Alabama.

Each team is comprised of a management and support element with the management element deploying in advance, and the support element following as the mission develops.

viewing survey map on device
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, temporary housing mission specialist Anne Wurtenberger, looks at a proposed site map. (U.S. Army photo by Brigida I. Sanchez)

The 10-person team managing the mission on Maui is made up of USACE employees from both the St. Paul and Huntington districts. The team consists of engineers, surveyors and mission specialists.

USACE Temporary Housing Mission Manager, Jeff McCullick said, “Housing missions involve a myriad of moving pieces. Site assessments need to be done, then there’s zoning and utility needs.”

Temporary housing is a normal mission assignment for USACE. However, no two disasters are ever the same.

“The mission on Maui is unique in that USACE is not doing the installation of the units,” said McCullick. “We are preparing the pads with utilities so FEMA can procure and install the units.”

McCullick said the group is one week into the process but gaining momentum. “Although we are still in the initial stages, the team has hit the ground running and are working with FEMA to get people into homes as soon as possible,” he said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $53.7 million base contract Nov. 3, to Pono Aina Management, LLC, an 8(a) Native Hawaiian Organization, based out of Waianae, Hawai'i, to construct a temporary elementary school campus in Lahaina. The temporary school will accommodate those students displaced from the King Kamehameha III Elementary School that was damaged and rendered unusable by the Aug. 8 wildfires in Maui County.  

As part of the USACE Critical Public Facilities mission assigned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support Hawai'i and the state Department of Education, USACE was tasked to design and oversee the installation of modular buildings for the temporary elementary school campus for the Lahaina community. The Galveston District will be responsible for contract management and project oversite.

"The children of Lahaina have gone through a heartbreaking trauma, and the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense and our partners can now help the state bring back a bit of normalcy to these young lives," said Col. Jess Curry, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Recovery Field Office commander. "This school may be temporary but will stand as a reminder that despite the grief and loss, Lahaina’s children will have a space to continue to learn, to dream and to thrive. We are proud to be here for them in this moment.”  

For information on the Hawaii Wildfire Response or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visit https://www.poh.usace.army.mil/Missions/Emergency-Response/Hawaii-Wildfires/

Sgt. Ethan Cavanaugh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. Sgt. Cavanaugh 24th overall in the apprentice category out of 440 competitors. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)
Sgt. Ethan Cavanaugh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. Sgt. Cavanaugh 24th overall in the apprentice category out of 440 competitors. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)

On an overcast October morning, the 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, came together with linemen from across the globe at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas, to showcase their unique skill set in the 39th Annual International Lineman's Rodeo.

The event brought the U.S. Army’s power generation specialists to the forefront, emphasizing how their expertise goes far beyond the battlefield, proving essential to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A gathering of elite linemen from the United States, Brazil and Canada, this rodeo provided an excellent opportunity for the U.S. Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion to demonstrate its capabilities in full-spectrum operations.

“It’s important for the public to see us out here,” said Maj. James “JD” Hala of Delta Company. “Whether it is supporting our partners like the FEMA during a crisis or the warfighter overseas, it gives them a better understanding of how we serve local, state, and national communities.”

Lt. Col. Langston Turner (left), commander, 249th Engineer Battalion, Maj. Gen. James Kokaska Jr. (middle left), deputy commanding general, reserve affairs and Maj. James “JD” Hala (middle right) converse with Spc. Christian Gavin (right), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)
Lt. Col. Langston Turner (left), commander, 249th Engineer Battalion, Maj. Gen. James Kokaska Jr. (middle left), deputy commanding general, reserve affairs and Maj. James “JD” Hala (middle right) converse with Spc. Christian Gavin (right), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)

The annual event brought the Battalion’s five companies and higher headquarters to the Kansas City District. It linked up active duty and reserve component Soldiers from Fort Belvoir, Fort Liberty, Schofield Barracks and Cranston, Rhode Island. Maj. Gen. James Kokaska Jr., deputy commanding general, Reserve Affairs and Command Sgt. Maj. Douglas Galick, USACE, were also in attendance supporting the 249th Engineer Battalion.

“It is a great honor to be here representing Alpha Company,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Ecker, a 30-year career Soldier. “This will be my last rodeo,” he reflected.

(USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)
Spc. Christian Gavin, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)

Ecker hails from Mana Koa, the moniker for the 249th’s Alpha Company. Bravo Company are Hurricanes, Charlie Company are Spartans, Delta Company are Roughnecks and Higher Headquarters Company are Renegades. Regardless of immediate company affiliation, they all wear the traditional white hard hat with the iconic red castle of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The linemen, divided into journeymen and apprentice categories, showcased their skills in hurt-man rescue and various pole climb challenges, demanding not only expertise and finesse but also unequivocal adherence to safety. The event facilitates Prime Power Soldiers' hands-on experience in uncommon daily operations tasks. It allowed them to expand their critical skills, sharpen their expertise and become more proficient in various roles.

Staff Sgt. Scott Skipper, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)
Staff Sgt. Scott Skipper, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)

“This is an outstanding opportunity, and we appreciate the electrical community putting this together,” said Lt. Col. Langston Turner, commander, 249th Engineer Battalion. “The [Soldiers ] interact with fellow professionals within the industry — learn and take advantage of the tools and skill sets presented here that we do not normally get our hands on.”

During emergencies, the 249th Engineer Battalion works in lockstep with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prime Power assists in power generation and distribution to help communities in times of crisis. These capabilities complement routine operations, including power requirement assessments, production, inspection, testing, maintenance, repair and overall upkeep of essential power infrastructures.

Sgt Daniel Driver, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. Staff Sgt. Scott Skipper, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)
Sgt Daniel Driver, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 249th Engineer Battalion, Prime Power, competes in the International Lineman's Rodeo in Bonner Springs, KS, on October 14, 2023. (USACE Photo by Andres Guzman)

As Soldiers honed their craft and highlighted their capabilities at the rodeo, the 249th Engineer Battalion reinforced the notion that their skills extend well beyond linework and are indispensable to the broader mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bubbles, the water safety robot, always wears a life jacket when he is out on the waterways. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)
Bubbles, the water safety robot, always wears a life jacket when he is out on the waterways. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

Artificial intelligence (AI) took the world by storm in 2023 when various rapidly-improving text-language models became publicly available. Since then, the human race has delved into the wacky, wild world of AI and faced some pressing questions: how do I trust the content I find online? Is my self-driving car plotting world domination? Will my toaster have a midlife crisis?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District also is facing some of these questions since today’s world is watching bits and bytes come face-to-face with backhoes, bulldozers, and barges. Since other sectors like healthcare, finance, education, automobiles, disability services, astronomy, etcetera etcetera are already using AI, the question becomes where AI’s future is in river navigation, flood damage reduction, emergency management, and other Corps of Engineers missions.

For the uninitiated, AI is a broad term that applies to a range of topics, but the part of AI most-commonly referenced is machine learning. ML feeds a software system massive amounts of training data to learn patterns and model those patterns in its decision-making.

AI generally has two categories: strong and weak. Strong AI is a machine capable of solving problems it has never been trained on, like a person can. Strong AI is what we see in movies – think self-aware androids. This technology does not exist yet.

Weak AI operates within a limited context for limited purposes, such as self-driving cars, conversation bots, and text-to-image simulators. Weak AI is what we see in OpenAI tools like ChatGPT and Dall-E, and the results can be pretty good (as seen in this social media photo):

Disclaimer: no beaver ever gave engineering advice to the Corps of Engineers. This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

…but that’s about all it can do.

Granted, AI is a natural progression of technology. What began with search engines is continuing through digital synthesis, and organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District are assessing how it can assuage the opportunities of AI to serve the public better while managing AI’s detractors.

The Corps of Engineers, being a civil works agency, has had some involvement in technological innovations throughout its nearly 250-year history. While the corps was not responsible for the top-line scientific discoveries, it did build the K-25 plant for the Manhattan Project (which, in 1942, was the largest building ever constructed). It later provided construction and design assistance in the 1960s for NASA at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.


However, this is not to say the corps is always at the forefront of modern technology. Much like the district’s 23 locks and dams on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers – some of which have been around for more than a century – tried-and-true methods that have withstood the test of time do not always necessitate immediately upgrading to the next model.

For instance, Allegheny River Lock 5 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, began operating in 1927 and installed an improved hydraulic system in 2023 to upgrade its resilience. Operators manage the hydraulic system with a touch screen.

James Burford, the lockmaster for Allegheny River locks 4-9, demonstrates how the old hydraulic system works at Allegheny River Lock 6 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, 2023. The system used a singular hydraulic system and required manual operation to open the lock gates. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Andrew Byrne)
James Burford, the lockmaster for Allegheny River locks 4-9, demonstrates how the old hydraulic system works at Allegheny River Lock 6 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, 2023. The system used a singular hydraulic system and required manual operation to open the lock gates. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Andrew Byrne)

The old system, shown here at Allegheny River Lock 6, involved a singular hydraulic system manually operated by levers positioned along the lock wall.

Fun fact: Lock 5 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

“There’s a whole panel of valve indicators, and it’s just like turning a dial,” said Anthony Self, a lock operator on the Allegheny River who has been with the district since 2015. “It’s controlling eight valves at a time to fill the chamber. We have much more precise control.”

The next step is implementing remote lock operations. As part of the Lower Mon construction project on the Monongahela River, Charleroi Locks and Dam is assembling a control tower to consolidate the facility’s locking capabilities to a single touchpoint.

The district is not averse to other types of emergent technology, either. The district’s geospatial office has been using drone technology since the time drones became publicly available, to map aerial footage of regional waterways, conduct inspections, monitor construction, digital surface modeling and more.

“We can even document the spread of harmful algal blooms at reservoirs or fly in emergency response situations during floods,” said Huan Tran, a member of the flight team in the geospatial office.

Brian Hickinbotham, a cartographer for the geospatial section with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, flies a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) to capture video footage at the Dashields Locks and Dam in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Aug. 27, 2021. The geospatial section also uses their SUAS to produce orthographic photos for mapping and to collect videos for virtual walkthroughs and assist with engineering plans.  (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret)
Brian Hickinbotham, a cartographer for the geospatial section with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District, flies a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) to capture video footage at the Dashields Locks and Dam in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Aug. 27, 2021. The geospatial section also uses their SUAS to produce orthographic photos for mapping and to collect videos for virtual walkthroughs and assist with engineering plans. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District photo by Michel Sauret)

“We often talk about being a world-class organization, so your technology must be on point. You can’t be behind somebody else’s capabilities,” Kristen Scott, the chief of the geospatial section for the district.

Nevertheless, as AI opens its digital maw as the technological “next step,” the district has not jumped on the AI train…yet.

This is probably for the best – emergent technology is, well, emergent, and the corps doing its job right can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Take flood-damage reduction, for instance. Pittsburgh District’s 16 flood risk-management reservoirs have prevented more than $14 billion in flood damages in its 26,000-square-mile footprint since their construction nearly a century ago. Regardless of how intelligent AI becomes, the corps will never solely rely on it to make a decision impacting people’s safety.

“It’s a powerful tool, and it’s a good thing, but we’re not empowering automation to take over decision-making or executing plans,” said Al Coglio, the district’s chief of emergency management.

Coglio’s job is critical. He coordinates with FEMA to send teams and emergency generators to areas devastated by natural disasters and left without power.

Bubbles, the water safety robot, dreams of one day being the next ‘big thing.’ This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)
Bubbles, the water safety robot, dreams of one day being the next ‘big thing.’ This photo was artificially generated. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers courtesy photo)

“We've gotten to the point now where we're saturated with data, and there's no real good way to use it,” said Coglio. “Back when I was growing up, if you wanted to learn something, you had to physically go to a library unless you were in a rich family and had encyclopedias. Now there’s so much information readily available at our fingertips.”

For Coglio, AI has the potential to be a powerful tool for not just the district, if implemented responsibly and can assist in the predicting, planning and prestaging phases of a natural disaster.

“If you look at all the different types of disasters like flooding, tornadoes, historical weather, and historical emergencies resulting from weather, I think automated intelligence can give us a better focus area,” said Coglio. “Even for mapping floods in Pittsburgh, we have general ideas, but what does that do for the average citizen? They’re concerned with if their house floods and automated intelligence can give them the specifics they need to know.”

Despite the opportunities AI presents, some are skeptical about its place in the current cultural conversation.

“I don’t think most people saw the next ‘big thing’ before it was the next ‘big thing,’” said Lt. Col. Daniel Tabacchi, the district’s deputy commander. “Are we lionizing it? Are we overstating the impact or effect AI will have? It’s hard to tell.”

“Then again, I haven’t used it for anything other to make my work easier,” added Tabacchi.

And for others in the district, AI’s advent does not change a thing about their day-to-day work. While any use of AI will always have human oversight, some areas that require boots-on-the-groundwork, such as lock operations, are not applicable.

“Do I think artificial intelligence will ever replace lock operations? No, absolutely not,” said John Dilla, the district’s chief of the Locks and Dams Branch. “It could enhance the data we use for operations and maintenance, but there are minute-to-minute understandings and decisions between lock operators and boat crews that a computer can’t do. People are irreplaceable.”

In the future, the district has opportunities to use artificial intelligence as a tool to serve better the 5.5 million people in its region while capitalizing on advancing technology.

But does AI itself concur?

Well, we asked one. It said this:

“AI, as a cutting-edge tool, has the potential to substantially augment the capabilities of the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. Its data-driven decision-making, predictive modeling, and resource optimization can optimize infrastructure management, leading to improved public service and resilience in the face of challenges.”

AI seems to agree, but maybe it just wants us to think it agrees.

Emergency Support Function 3 team leader Eddie Leblanc speaks with assistant team leader Jessica Fischer at the Joint Field Office for the Hawai'i wildfires response in Honolulu Sept. 28. USACE personnel from across the enterprise are deployed to support the response effort, and the ESF3 team works from the JFO alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other partners. (U.S. Army photo by Joshua Voda)

“Every time you go out on one of these missions, there are people who’ve just had one of the worst days of their lives, so getting out, being able to do whatever you can to help them put their lives back together and get back on their feet and back to normal is probably the biggest motivation.”

When Eddie LeBlanc, the current team leader for Emergency Support Function 3, Public Works and Engineering responding to the Hawai'i wildfires, reflects on what compels him to serve, he also reflects on a 25-year career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—one that has prepared him to take on the numerous responsibilities of leading an ESF3 mission team.

LeBlanc started out in construction, taking a student co-op role in the USACE New Orleans District’s Lafayette area office. His construction work eventually led him to Emergency Management, where he was introduced to deploying by becoming part of the Debris Planning and Response Team.

“My first deployment was in 2004, during Hurricane Isabel in Virginia,” he said. “From there I continued deploying for many years in various other positions on the PRT and then became a debris subject matter expert.”

All this experience with the debris team culminated in 2013 with LeBlanc becoming the debris program manager for USACE, then a decade later taking a position as a permanent ESF3 cadre member, one of only five such positions in the agency. The overall team leader and assistant team leader cadre has about 80 people.

He noted, “I think a big part [of being on the cadre] is just helping others. You see the fruits of your labor, helping people get back on their feet after they’ve had such a horrible experience. It’s always good to see the communities come back, especially coming from a state that gets a lot of hurricanes and disasters themselves. I know what it means to have others come in and help you and your family.”

LeBlanc arrived Sept. 4 in Hawai'i to lead the ESF3 response. As the second team leader to rotate in, he quickly began linking up with principal contacts at the State of Hawai'i, Maui County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other partners. Because an ESF3 response is funded through a FEMA mission assignment, it’s especially important to build strong relationships with FEMA leaders on the ground.

“They’re the ones who once we have deployment orders let us know who’s who and what’s expected for the disaster [response],” said LeBlanc.

Shortly after arriving, LeBlanc surveyed the damage of the impact areas on Maui in Kula and Lahaina. Though he had seen wildfires before, serving as the debris program manager and lead debris subject matter expert for the 2017 California wildfires—the first wildfire mission USACE had received—the differences in this event are clear.

“It’s some of the worst devastation I’ve seen in my numerous years deploying,” he said. “It’s definitely different than what I have seen in the past, especially knowing the cultural sensitivity on Maui and [logistical] challenges of it being an island and isolated really puts a lot more perspective on how to manage it.”

Recently USACE stood up a Recovery Field Office as a central location on Maui to help manage the recovery effort. The ESF3 team works in tandem with the RFO to ensure mission assignments are written and executed correctly and to coordinate between the RFO and FEMA for mission requirements.

“We’re doing that continued coordination on what the needs are from the RFO to execute the missions, making sure they have the funding and that we meet any other needs,” he said.

Another important aspect of being an ESF3 team leader is working with PRT action officers to ensure mission resourcing and overseeing the allocation of the mission assignment task orders that act as checks to fund various objectives.

“We’re the conduit that goes back and forth between FEMA and the state to those on the PRTs to coordinate timelines and funding to help keep them on track to complete the mission in a timely manner,” said LeBlanc.

This mission is the first where LeBlanc is the sole team leader. In his past recovery missions where he’s responded in this position, there were multiple team leaders, so this has offered a new learning environment and an opportunity to sharpen his skillset.

“You always learn lessons, and every mission you come away with something different, but coordinating at this level for the first time is a big eye opener and will help me further my confidence and expertise in the position going forward,” he said.

Disaster response also brings its own unique stressors and challenges. LeBlanc credits his family for helping him stay mentally fit to lead.

“I know there’s a strong network back home and having support from my wife and kids after doing this for 20-plus years helps me keep focus on the mission and what I’m doing for others,” he said. “The biggest thing I get out of every mission is the satisfaction of helping others in their time of need.”

An aerial view of the Palo Seco power plant in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo U.S. Army)
An aerial view of the Palo Seco power plant in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo U.S. Army)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has chosen six contractors to compete for contracts worth up to $5 billion aimed at stabilizing Puerto Rico's power system. This decision comes in the wake of several storms and an earthquake over recent years that have left the power grid in Puerto Rico in a precarious state.

These multiple award task order contracts, granted by USACE, Savannah District, span a five-year ordering period. The primary objective of these contracts is to provide temporary power augmentation and address related issues with power generation facilities, as outlined by USACE. At an industry event earlier this year, officials stated that the contractors' task would involve enabling the generation of 350 MW to 700 MW at various locations across Puerto Rico.

The anticipated scope of work encompasses supplying equipment such as dual-fuel generators capable of running on natural gas or diesel, the installation of said equipment, and its operation for periods estimated to range from six to 18 months, according to USACE solicitation documents. Task orders may also entail the repair and replacement of components within existing transmission and distribution facilities. Close coordination with the public Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and utility company LUMA Energy will be a crucial aspect of the contractors' responsibilities.

Leaders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA conduct a site visit at the Costa Sur Power Plant near Ponce, Puerto Rico, Nov. 30, 2022. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working closely with federal agency partners in response to the Government of Puerto Rico’s request for assistance stabilizing the power system following the impacts of Hurricane Fiona. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Grace Geiger)
Leaders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conduct a site visit at the Costa Sur Power Plant near Ponce, Puerto Rico, Nov. 30, 2022. USACE is working closely with federal agency partners in response to the Government of Puerto Rico’s request for assistance stabilizing the power system following the impacts of Hurricane Fiona. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Grace Geiger)

The selected firms include Amentum Services; AshBritt; CDM Constructors; OMP Solutions; PTSI Managed Services; and Weston Solutions, as confirmed by the U.S. Dept. of Defense contract award notice.

USACE intends to employ hybrid firm-fixed price task orders that incorporate elements of cost-plus fixed fees to account for fluctuations in fuel prices. The solicitation emphasizes that fuel costs pose the highest risk for this work, given the historical volatility of the petroleum market.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration assists with the installation of a microgrid in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Jan. 30, 2018. Category 5 Hurricane Irma and Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the American territory leaving many of its 3.4 million residents without shelter, food, water, and all without power.(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration assists with the installation of a microgrid in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Jan. 30, 2018. Category 5 Hurricane Irma and Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the American territory leaving many of its 3.4 million residents without shelter, food, water, and all without power.(U.S. Army photo)

In response to last year's Hurricane Fiona, which temporarily plunged the island into darkness, the Biden administration established the Puerto Rico Power System Stabilization Task Force. This task force, consisting of USACE, FEMA, Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency, has prioritized initiatives to add 150 MW in temporary power generation units at the Palo Seco Power Plant and another 200 MW of temporary generation at different facilities, according to the White House.

President Joe Biden underlined the importance of this effort, stating, "We know that the climate crisis and more extreme weather are going to continue to hit this island and hit the United States overall, and as we rebuild, we have to ensure that we build it to last. We're particularly focused on the power grid."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District is working to delay upriver progression of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico by augmenting the sill initially constructed in July 2023. Construction is underway to increase the existing underwater sill from a depth of -55 feet to a depth of -30 feet. A 620-foot-wide navigation lane will be kept to a depth of -55 feet to ensure deep-draft shipping continues along the nation’s busiest inland waterway. (USACE image)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District is working to delay upriver progression of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico by augmenting the sill initially constructed in July 2023.

Construction is underway to increase the existing underwater sill from a depth of -55 feet to a depth of -30 feet. A 620-foot-wide navigation lane will be kept to a depth of -55 feet to ensure deep-draft shipping continues along the nation’s busiest inland waterway.

USACE initially constructed the underwater barrier sill in July 2023 to create an artificial basin to delay the ingress of salt water beyond river mile 64 above Head of Passes. As a result of the river’s prolonged extreme low-flow rate, the underwater sill was overtopped Sept. 20, 2023.

“As a result of continued falling conditions, this existing sill was overtopped and the toe of the saltwater wedge has reached River Mile 69, near the community of Jesuit Bend,” said Col. Cullen Jones, USACE New Orleans District commander. “Our modeling indicates that by augmenting the existing sill, we can support state and local preparedness and response efforts by delaying further upriver progression of the salt water by approximately 10 to 15 days.”

In addition to the sill augmentation, USACE is preparing to transport fresh water to impacted areas. During previous low-water events, such as 1988 and 2012, barging was used to transport fresh water to treatment facilities downriver of the saltwater toe.

“The Corps is securing water barges that will support impacted water treatment facilities by transporting water collected from portions of the river that do not have salinity readings,” said Jones. “This water can then be combined with water at the municipal facility to create a mixture that is safe for treatment.”

The intrusion of salt water into the river is a naturally occurring phenomenon because the bottom of the riverbed between Natchez, Miss., and the Gulf of Mexico is below sea level. Denser salt water moves upriver along the bottom of the river beneath the less dense fresh water flowing downstream. Under normal conditions, the downstream flow of the river prevents significant upriver progression of the salt water. However, in times of extreme low volume water flow, such as what has been occurring this year, unimpeded salt water can travel upriver and threaten municipal drinking water and industrial water supplies. An underwater sill was constructed on four previous occasions in 1988, 1999, 2012 and last year in 2022.

“As new information becomes available, we will reevaluate the projected movement of the salt water and share this information with our partners and the public for their preparedness, readiness, and response,” said Jones.

The aftermath of the Almeda wildfire in Oregon in 2022 can be seen through a burned-out van. Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Oregon in 2022 after a wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)
The aftermath of the Almeda wildfire in Oregon in 2022 can be seen through a burned-out van. Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Oregon in 2022 after a wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)

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.

Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Oregon in 2022 after the Almeda wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. Rick Weixelbaum, national emergency preparedness program manager and natural disaster program manager at the Kansas City District, stands in front of trees that were removed in the aftermath of the wildfire. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)
Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Oregon in 2022 after the Almeda wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. Rick Weixelbaum, national emergency preparedness program manager and natural disaster program manager at the Kansas City District, stands in front of trees that were removed in the aftermath of the wildfire. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)

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.”

Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Boulder, Colorado, in 2022 after a wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator came to the site to check on the debris removal progress and meet with the team. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)
Members of the Kansas City District’s debris project response team deployed to Boulder, Colorado, in 2022 after a wildfire as part of a technical monitoring mission. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator came to the site to check on the debris removal progress and meet with the team. (USACE photo by Christine Paul)

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.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration assists with the installation of a microgrid in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Jan. 30, 2018. Category 5 Hurricane Irma and Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the American territory leaving many of its 3.4 million residents without shelter, food, water, and all without power.(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration assists with the installation of a microgrid in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Jan. 30, 2018. Category 5 Hurricane Irma and Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged the American territory leaving many of its 3.4 million residents without shelter, food, water, and all without power.(Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

“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?”

Staff Sgt. Franck Njele, a petroleum supply specialist from the 25th Infantry Division, removes the ground wire from a fuel tank after offloading for a fuel delivery Aug. 23. The Soldiers are operating a Heavy Expandable Mobile Tactical Truck at a forward fuel point that optimizes refueling efficiency for USACE contractors who pick up and deliver fuel to 20 Federal Emergency Management Agency generators installed at critical facilities that lost power following the wildfires Aug. 8. (U.S. Army photo by Brannen Parrish)
Staff Sgt. Franck Njele, a petroleum supply specialist from the 25th Infantry Division, removes the ground wire from a fuel tank after offloading for a fuel delivery Aug. 23. The Soldiers are operating a Heavy Expandable Mobile Tactical Truck at a forward fuel point that optimizes refueling efficiency for USACE contractors who pick up and deliver fuel to 20 Federal Emergency Management Agency generators installed at critical facilities that lost power following the wildfires Aug. 8. (U.S. Army photo by Brannen Parrish)

In response to the Aug. 8 Hawai’i Wildfires, a fuel team from the 25th Infantry Division stepped in to fill a critical need for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' temporary power mission on Maui.

At the request of the Corps, the 25th ID, located on Oahu, provided a team of soldiers and two Heavy Expandable Mobile Tactical Trucks to fuel temporary generators which are providing support to water wells and other critical public facilities in Lāhainā since the wildfires began.

“The fueler is offloading between 300 to 600 gallons of diesel fuel daily,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Maksym Zymin, Temporary Power Team Commander “They’re an additional asset that provides redundancy and efficiency for the contractor’s fueling operations.

When combined with the skills of soldiers who are operating and maintaining them, they are a “response multiplier” for the USACE temporary power team.

The fuel trucks can hold and transport up to 2,500 gallons of fuel. Zymin said that deploying the fuel trucks closer to the deployed generators has reduced refuel runs by 40 miles and reduced risk.

“As safety is one of the primary considerations of the mission, driving fewer miles minimize the risk of an accident and potential fuel spill,” Zymin said.

Donald Schlack, temporary power team subject matter expert from the USACE Honolulu District, said the generators keep critical infrastructure operating, enabling water and power companies to work on repairs.

Sgt. Louisse Jem Sinang, petroleum specialist from the 25th Infantry Division returns a fuel line to the Heavy Expandable Mobile Tactical Truck, Aug. 23. The 25th ID is supporting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Planning Power and Response Team's emergency response mission to the Hawai'i Wildfires on Maui. (U.S. Army photo by Brannen Parrish)
Sgt. Louisse Jem Sinang, petroleum specialist from the 25th Infantry Division returns a fuel line to the Heavy Expandable Mobile Tactical Truck, Aug. 23. The 25th ID is supporting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Planning Power and Response Team's emergency response mission to the Hawai'i Wildfires on Maui. (U.S. Army photo by Brannen Parrish)

“While we’re providing power to critical infrastructure and municipal buildings with the generators, it’s one less thing the electric and water companies must think about while they’re dealing with the recovery,” said Schlack. “It lets them focus on restoring electricity and water for the larger population.”

The soldiers operating and maintaining the fuel trucks come from all over the world and are comprised of petroleum supply specialists, wheeled vehicle mechanics and chemical refueler repairers.

Sgt. 1st Class Lanilua Pine is leading the unit as they do their part to support recovery efforts.

Pine said she feels a close connection with the people of Hawai'i. On the way to retrieve the fuel trucks each day, they pass through areas directly affected by the wildfires.

“This really hits home,” said Pine. “It’s personal. It’s family. We can make a difference in how we help people, and we want to help.”

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