Two days after Hurricane Maria broadsided Puerto Rico in late September, a small team from the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Mobile District was deployed to begin a massive and ongoing response to the monumental infrastructural disaster on the the island.
According to Mobile District Commander Col. James A. DeLapp, in national emergencies the Corps is dispatched through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to perform public works and engineering tasks needed to move along recovery efforts.
The district that gets assigned is based on geographic proximity to the event, and typically, DeLapp said, the Jacksonville District would cover Puerto Rico. However, that district was already responding to Hurricane Irma, which struck South Florida just 10 days earlier.
The Mobile District was the next closest, and since then more than 80 local employees have volunteered to join hundreds of others in Puerto Rico dispatched from districts across the country as the Corps continues its recovery efforts.
“Our main mission has been providing temporary emergency power, which means installing generators at critical facilities like police stations, hospitals and 911 centers,” DeLapp told Lagniappe in a call from San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. “To date, we’ve installed more than 440, but we’re expecting to double that number at the rate we’re going.”
By comparison, while responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Corps installed just 310 emergency generators throughout all of coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.
In addition, the Corps is having to repair some of the generators they’ve already installed. DeLapp said those generators aren’t designed to run 24/7 but could be the only source of power in some areas for several months as the Corps works with contractors to essentially rebuild the vast majority of Puerto Rico’s electric grid.
Other key components of the Corps’ mission have been removing debris and installing temporary roofing on residential homes and businesses. So far, more than 6 million cubic yards of debris have been removed and more than 6,000 temporary roofs have been installed, though DeLapp said that only scratches the surface of both efforts.
As national news reported, there were several logistical challenges to responding to the disaster in Puerto Rico, not the least of which is the three-day sail needed to send supplies to the island. When it came to equipment like power trucks, which can travel from neighboring states during a mainland emergency, DeLapp said Puerto Rico “only had what was on the island, which wasn’t nearly enough.”
On top of that, Hurricane Maria left almost no communication infrastructure in its wake, which continues to present a logistical challenge for recovery workers as private wireless companies continue their efforts to get cell phone towers back up and running.
“When we first hit the ground here, there were still a lot of hazards on the roadways — like light poles, power lines — and obviously, there was very little to no light because, for the most part, more than 80 percent of the island had lost power,” DeLapp said. “Plus, without the power to run stoplights, things were even more hazardous for team members traveling on the roads.”
After nearly two months, DeLapp said progress had been made in most of those areas, but given the scale of the recovery effort, he said, groups of employees and soldiers will continue to be deployed to the island for months to come — most volunteering in 30-day rotations that typically entail 12-hour workdays, seven days a week.
“We’ve got over 600 Corps employees deployed from across the nation, and every single one of them is a volunteer,” DeLapp said. “Of those, more than 80 are out of Mobile District, and we’ll likely be here until July  and will continue to get volunteers, typically in 30-day rotations.”
As far the local district’s contributions to the Corps mission in Puerto Rico, DeLapp said it’s something the entire Mobile team is excited to be a part of.
“Being a Gulf Coast community, we know we’re just as susceptible to hurricanes, and many of us have lived through that,” he added. “We’re glad to be doing our part to help these folks out, and we’re going to see this through and get them back on their feet.”
Photo | Courtesy USACOE – Col. James A. DeLapp (left), the commander and district engineer for the Mobile District, discusses stabilization efforts at Puerto Rico’s Guajataca Dam, which was damaged by Hurricane Maria.