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US Corps of Engineers heavily involved in Puerto Rico aid and disaster response

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Crews, contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, continue to work on Christmas morning in an area of Puerto Rico where most poles had either been broken or toppled by hurricanes. Residences and businesses in the area have been without power for over 100 days. USACE is partnering with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the Department of Energy and FEMA and associated contracted partners, to restore safe and reliable power to the people of Puerto Rico. — with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Atlantic Division.

The City of Erie is dealing with problems from a major snowstorm almost a week ago.

Puerto Rico is still dealing with the effects of a category 5 hurricane four months ago.

The 2017 hurricane season was one of the most active, and the most destructive, on record.

In August and September, there were four hurricanes that reached at least category 4 strength — Harvey, Irma (5), Jose, and Maria (5).

After Harvey initially landed in Texas, the rest of the heavy damage was done farther east.

The storms killed almost 900 people and caused $370 billion in damages.

There were private and government efforts to help those who had lost power and homes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded in multiple ways to the disasters.

The Pittsburgh District, which includes Kinzua Dam, was next up when the storms hit.

Pittsburgh District Public Affairs Officer Jeff Hawk was one of those deployed.

“The Pittsburgh District is heavily involved in Puerto Rico response and in Harvey down in Texas,” Hawk said.

Typically, the Corps prepares for pending problems by being on the scene in advance and being ready to maintain or restore power to critical infrastructure. “We manage the national temporary power contract for the Corps of Engineers,” Hawk said. “If it looks like something big’s going to happen, we get some people stationed so we can respond quickly. These are generators that get plugged into critical facilities, so when there’s a disaster, FEMA calls on us to execute that contract.”

That’s what happened in Texas and Florida.

It was also needed in Puerto Rico.

The Corps has seven of those power teams. One of them is based in Pittsburgh. When the storms hit, Pittsburgh’s name was called.

After Texas and Florida, “the Pittsburgh temporary power mission had deployed back home,” Hawk said.

When Irma struck the U.S. Virgin Islands, USACE Col. John Lloyd was sent “to get things set up there.”

He was still on St. Croix when Maria struck.

Maria hit the Virgin Islands hard. But its full force struck Puerto Rico.

Temporary power to critical facilities was required there, but the island had, and continues to have, a unique need.

The power team was redeployed.

“They got called down to Puerto Rico to assist with the largest and probably longest temporary power mission in our history,” Hawk said.

“Typically, the Corps of Engineers does temporary power restoration,” he said. “This mission is unique. This was the first time on American soil that we were given the mission to restore a power grid.”

“The chief said there’s nothing more important than getting the power grid restored,” he said. “We were able to draw experts from around the world. There was a heavy Pittsburgh presence.”

The first Corps personnel were on Puerto Rico on Oct. 11. Hawk arrived with a larger wave two days later.

“The Pittsburgh District… we built a district down there — attorneys, accountants, quality assurance, engineers, public affairs, safety…” Hawk said. “They stood that up very quickly and started issuing contracts, started ordering $140 million in supplies, in just a few days.”

There weren’t any supplies to move. And there weren’t any roads from the facilities in the states to the area of need.

“We had three hurricanes hit before Maria,” Hawk said. “Maria hits. The Corps of Engineers and PREPA — Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority — begins to look for supplies and everything’s gone. Now we have to back-order everything. The poles need to get made, shipped to a port, float, unloaded…”

It wasn’t that there was no hurry.

“Until you’re down there and you see a steel reinforced concrete pole that’s been snapped in two, you don’t get the idea of the power of the storm,” Hawk said. “Just driving around and seeing things like that and talking to the folks… Most of the people that I talked to said they were pretty terrified.”

Still, people were toughing it out after 100 days without power.

“The people are still gracious. They’re resilient. They’re appreciative,” Hawk said. “They rode out that storm and they understand the damage that was done to everything.”

“People are just out there helping each other out,” he said.

And the Corps of Engineers has been working hard, too. Like many who were sent with the initial wave, Hawk spent 60 days in Puerto Rico, only returning to Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

“In the early days we had blackouts,” he said. “We had brownouts.”

“You work holidays,” he said. “You will work from 7 a.m. to at least 7:30 at night.”

“The Pittsburgh District has really contributed,” he said. “I think the people can really be proud of the service.”