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    Irma, Maria launch NWO's Blue Roof Team into months-long action

    Operation Blue Roof is Being Installed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    Photo By Raymond Piper | Fredericksted, St. Croix, USVI--Contractors work to put fiber-reinforced blue plastic...... read more read more



    Story by Michael Glasch 

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District

    Organized chaos!

    That’s how Nicole Cominoli, natural disaster program manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, described the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the late summer/early fall of 2017.

    “We already had district employees in Texas who had deployed to respond to Hurricane Harvey when we started tracking Hurricane Irma as it approached the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Cominoli said. “In anticipation of the storm making landfall we stood up the EOC on the first (September) and put our Temporary Roofing (Blue Roof) Planning & Response Team on standby on the fifth.

    “The EOC got tense and sometimes hushed, yet extremely busy at the same time,” she added.

    On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma tore its way across the U.S. Virgin Islands as a category 5 storm, mixing together a deadly combination of winds and rising water. Irma impacted St. Thomas, St. John and Water Islands most severely, but also caused communication issues and some damage to infrastructure on St. Croix. The storm carried maximum sustained winds near 185 mph, with even higher gusts. Most areas received six to 12 inches of rainfall, with a maximum of 17 inches recorded.

    That same day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued an emergency declaration verbal mission assignment to USACE to activate the management element of the Emergency Support Function (ESF) #3 Temporary Roofing Planning and Response Team (PRT). The management element was tasked to develop a plan of action to respond to the expected demand for temporary roofing. This plan was closely coordinated with FEMA logistics and FEMA individual assistance.

    The next day, Sept. 7, three members of the Omaha team departed for the islands to inspect the damage. Due to the strong possibility that category 4 Hurricane Jose was to follow in the path of Hurricane Irma, the team was delayed in Newark, New Jersey, for two days, finally arriving on St Croix on Sept. 9. At that point, Hurricane Jose had veered slightly north of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but brought with it days of tropical storms that hit the Virgin Islands flooding residences and streets. Nine more members of the Omaha Temporary Roofing team arrived on the islands Sept. 16, ready to get to work collecting right of entry forms from homeowners seeking temporary roofing.

    One of those first on the ground was Nickie Begeman, an administrative officer from the district’s Fort Crook Area Office on Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.

    “Upon arrival, the team secured quarters and set up a very small office for temporary roofing operations,” she said. “We acquired more space as time went on, but having up to 30 members in a parking lot every day in the elements for review of assignments and getting daily updates was the best we could do with what was available initially.”

    Securing suitable places to not only set up operations, but to live as well, would prove to be a constant challenge.

    “Finding adequate housing on St. Thomas for the team as it grew in numbers was a challenge. The first several nights on St. Thomas were spent in a resort condominium,” said Doug Foster, a project engineer at the district’s Fort Carson, Colorado, Resident Office. “However without power, air conditioning, blown-out windows, unreliable safe drinking water, mosquito swarms, no food other than what team members had packed, and no cell phone service, the night was spent very uncomfortably.

    “There was one hotel/resort on the island that remained open with their own power generation, water treatment, and restaurant. Since they had a limited number of rooms available, team members had to share rooms with up to four individuals assigned together,” Foster recalled. “Other hotels were found to be sub-standard with lack of power, air conditioning, and safe water. The hotel was on the other side of the island from the VITEMA (Virgin Islands Territorial Management Agency ) office and required a long commute each day over roads partially blocked with downed power lines, trees, debris, flooding, potholes, and heavy traffic.”

    In addition to the lack of power, location turned out to be another major obstacle facing recovery volunteers. Unlike Florida (Irma) and Texas (Harvey) where supplies could be driven in, materials needed for rebuilding the U.S. Virgin Islands had to be shipped or flown in.

    “Due to being on an island, sometimes supplies would take a while to arrive or would be held up in customs which slowed down the process,” said Office of Counsel’s Melissa Head, who deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands to work on the Temporary Roofing Mission Assignment. “We tried to manage expectations of homeowners and also tried to work closely with the contractor and crews to train them on the proper way to install temporary roofs.”

    Those were not the only challenges facing the team. They were about to get hit with a double whammy as Hurricane Maria had its sights set on the islands as well.

    “When Hurricane Maria was forecast to hit the islands, the stress and intensity increased immensely in the EOC,” recalled Tonya Dutra, emergency management specialist, Omaha District. “The safety of our district personnel and acquiring 100 percent accountability was a difficult but necessary task as events on and around the islands played out. All we could do was wait for the storm to pass and then for the phone call telling us everyone was safe and accounted for. In the meantime, we had supervisors, co-workers, and spouses asking us if their loved ones were safe and accounted for.”

    “There was a certain amount of helplessness felt in the EOC both when the team initially went to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Irma, as well as when Maria was about to hit,” Cominoli recalled.

    The impending threat of Hurricane Maria put the mission on a temporary hold.

    “The mission on St. Thomas was set back after three days due to reports that a second hurricane (Maria) was in the forecast,” said Foster. “Due to the austere living arrangements on St. Thomas, it was determined that most of the temporary roofing team would depart to St. Croix Island, which had not been damaged by Irma.”

    However, this time it was St. Croix that took the direct hit. Also a category 5 storm, Maria struck St. Croix on Sept. 19 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, with gusts of 195 mph. Most areas in the U.S. Virgin Islands received 12 to 18 inches of rain with a maximum of 25 inches. After passing into the Caribbean Sea, swells in the Atlantic Ocean measured 25 to 40 feet. The difficulties encountered on St. Thomas now were present on St. Croix as well.

    Begeman was one of those who rode out the storm on St. Thomas.

    “It should be said, that even though we all had rough times in the beginning, with little lodging available, no electrical, debris-filled streets and yards, threat of riots and little gas for the vehicles at times, the temporary roofing team that stayed on St. Croix had to endure a harder time with Hurricane Maria than those five left on St. Thomas,” she said. “The winds and debris flying around as well as one of the hotel rooms started to have roof issues and employees bunked with others during the hurricane.

    Once Hurricane Maria passed, it was time for the team to get back to work, working with FEMA, as well as several other federal and local agencies.

    “After Hurricane Maria, the team members on St. Croix needed to return to St. Thomas and rejoin the small group that had remained in the Virgin Islands Territorial Management Agency (VITEMA) shelter during hurricane Maria,” Foster said. “The lack of air transport between the two islands delayed the return by four days. Finally, a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter was able to take the team, including luggage, on the twenty minute flight to St. Thomas.”

    The team started collecting Temporary Roofing Applications the day after Maria hit the islands. Initially, they started by walking door-to-door in 100 degree weather, battling rain and debris-filled streets to include hazards like dogs, spiders (tarantulas), mosquitos, downed electrical lines, and unstable debris, not to mention the flash flooding from the continued rains.

    Zach Montreuil, a natural resources specialist with the Gavins Point (South Dakota) Project Office, recalled that the totality of the devastation made getting the program up and running a daunting task.

    “The biggest challenge was communication with the public following the disaster. We were set up at fire stations, schools, and other public buildings signing people up for the Temporary Roofing Program, and it was difficult getting the word out right away,” Montreuil said. “People didn’t have access to Facebook, internet, television, or radio because the communications were down and/or they didn’t have electricity. So we wanted to help people but it was difficult to do right away. It got significantly better as communications were re-established and people had access to internet, phone, and word of mouth.”

    In addition to going door-to-door, Right of Entry collection centers were established on three of the four islands requesting assistance (no collection center was in operation on Water Island, but the island was canvassed). The centers remained open until Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23.

    Sept. 22-23 saw the final initial surge of responders, with an additional 38 Omaha personnel joining the team. They arrived just as the first blue roof was being installed on the islands.

    In addition to finding suitable shelter (work and living spaces), crews faced a number of other logistical challenges. Travel around the island was very difficult, especially early in the mission, not only because of a lack of vehicles, but also due to debris, power lines and poles, and other obstructions.

    “On a good note, some of us got real good at changing and repairing tires on the jeeps due to so much debris out in the field,” Begeman joked.

    Teams found that the home addresses on the U.S. Virgin Islands were extremely difficult to track. Some roads were unnamed, and numbered addresses were not sequential, but were laid out according to plot date making finding an exact home, based only on an address, very challenging. In some cases, multiple homes shared a single address. In addition, there was more than one address system, so some properties had more than one address. This resulted in duplicate assessments, time lost finding addresses, and general frustration among assessment teams.

    “Finding addresses for properties to be evaluated and repaired was a major challenge. GPS location of the properties was unavailable, the properties had no postal addresses, street names were not used or posted, roads to some of the properties were inaccessible,” Foster explained. “The County Assessor addresses that were provided for the properties were not understood by the local people. The address puzzle was finally solved by a team member that combined County Assessor maps with aerial photographs into an easily understood visual mapping package that could be provided to the evaluation and quality assurance team members.”

    Begeman credits the help of the local population with helping figure out the confusing maze of addresses.

    “I will say the teachers on St. Thomas were amazing and we would not have been able to find as many homes as we did if it had not been for them volunteering to help us sort the applications into areas for the contractor to put on the temporary roofs and for our team to go back and re-inspect the jobs,” he said.

    As work progressed, it became evident that due to the sheer volume of structures that needed roofing, the sole contractor being utilized would need additional help.

    “We had a goal of repairing 200 roofs a day,” said Charles McWilliams, a meteorologist with the district’s Hydrologic Hazards Team. “We added an additional local contractor to increase the number of available roofing teams working on the islands.”

    Through October, USACE-Omaha sent people in groups of five to ten a week to the islands. November through December saw fewer people deploying less frequently and more returning from islands as the mission began to wrap up for the roofing team.

    A total of 3,656 residential structures received temporary roofs through the Temporary Roofing Mission Assignment which was carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was funded by FEMA. In addition, temporary roofing was also provided for critical infrastructure facilities such as hospitals, airports, schools, and other facilities as approved by FEMA. The final roof was installed Dec. 15, more than three months after the first storm hit the islands.

    Michael Welch, Gavins Point Power Plant superintendent, likened the experience to a military operation.

    “The temporary roofing team is the Infantry of the national disaster response in support of ESF 3 missions, almost literally parachuting in and then fighting your way out,” he said. “There were a lot of obstacles and challenges that we had to overcome. The majority of these challenges were addressed locally and solved to the extent that they could be solved. The solution for many of them are directly attributed to the past history and experiences of the SME's (subject matter experts) who were making decisions on the ground as the moving target hovered.”

    The temporary roofing support mission for the Omaha EOC ended Jan. 31, 2018.

    In total; 95 Omaha District personnel deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands in support of the temporary roofing mission (to include two rehired annuitant cadre, one person from the USACE-Walla Walla district, and three from the USACE-Northwest Division); four persons re-deployed to help close out the mission; ten personnel supported the EOC for the duration of the Temporary Roofing Mission; and 20 personnel provided other reach back support for contracting, construction, program management, and other support functions from Omaha.

    “Nowhere else but in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, can you literally drop in in a moment’s notice, plan the mission on the trunk of a rental car and then in four months serve thousands of people and execute millions of dollars' worth of contracts and services,” Welch said.

    Despite the many challenges, harsh living conditions and long hours, members of the Temporary Roofing Team took away a sense of pride in helping out their fellow citizens and being part of a unique team.

    “These efforts ensured that many American citizens living in the territory were able to remain in the safety and security of their homes while the rebuilding process continued,” McWilliams said. “This resulted in the restoration of hope in the weeks leading up to Christmas and helped to instill an even greater amount of joy to their lives.”

    “I’ll always remember the extreme gratitude that the greater majority of the people who received assistance expressed for the efforts given on their behalf,” Welch said in retrospect. “We served the public, our teams learned more about themselves and the Corps of Engineers and many friendships have evolved that will be able to support this mission for many years and storms to come.”



    Date Taken: 08.01.2018
    Date Posted: 08.30.2018 14:05
    Story ID: 290976
    Location: OMAHA, NEBRASKA, US

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