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Posted 1/16/2018

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By Patrick Loch
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – began undertaking several large-scale missions to help residents in Puerto Rico recover from the devastating storms.

Two of the missions assigned to the USACE Recovery Field Office, Puerto Rico, include debris removal and emergency temporary power. The need for both of these efforts as part of FEMA’s Emergency Support Function #3, Public Works and Engineering, is highlighted by the fact that four months after the hurricanes both missions are still being undertaken at full capacity.

Estimates put the total amount of debris to be collected on the island in the aftermath of the storms at 6.2 million cubic yards. Of this total, USACE was tasked to collect 3.9 million cubic yards. With more than 1,300 trucks certified to haul vegetative, construction and demolition debris, contracted employees collect nearly 40,000 cubic yards daily from the 52 of 78 municipalities.

“The debris removal mission is a lot more complex than just removing garbage, and there are plenty of difficulties working on the island,” said Kayla Stull, debris mission manager. “We’re very limited space wise and geographically, and we have to go through extensive environmental processes to get the lease sites we have – and even when we get those sites, it’s tight and access is limited.

“It makes the mission worthwhile to know your team is working around the clock and producing good work to help the people of Puerto Rico.”

The debris is hauled to more than 70 collection sites on the island, where it is separated and mulched, with some of the mulched vegetative debris making its way to beneficial use sites – an effort that reduces the amount of material headed to landfills. As of mid-January, more than 2 million cubic yards have been collected.

The temporary emergency power mission in Puerto Rico has exceeded any such mission by the U.S. Corps of Engineers threefold. Grid power was severely impacted as the vulnerable, aging infrastructure could not withstand the severity of the storm, leaving hundreds of medical facilities, waste water facilities, water pumping stations and police and fire departments in the dark.

“Our mission is to get generators to those critical facilities,” said Neal Newman, emergency temporary power mission manager. “We get power provided to those facilities in order for them to function.

“To me it’s a heartwarming thing to be able to provide energy for people that need critical energy at the time.”

FEMA identified more than 1,200 critical public facilities requiring temporary emergency power until the grid could be restored. To date more than 1,000 of those buildings are receiving power, with crews installing generators daily and ensuring those already installed continue to run.

Additionally, USACE dispatched crews to provide maintenance and repairs on generators on the island before the storms hit to ensure those existing generators can supplement the power need during the response efforts and remain serviceable for future use.

USACE continues to carry out these missions in addition to Operation Blue Roof – which provides temporary roofing for residents whose homes were damaged as a result of the storm – as well as repairs to critical public facilities and the grid restoration effort. Restoring grid power is a first for USACE, as the organization works with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to bring power back to all residents on the island.