When the Federal Emergency Management Agency calls upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to render assistance after a disaster, one of the first teams to hit the ground is the USACE Critical Public Facilities team.
Whether they’re called upon following an earthquake, hurricane, or wildfire, there is one common goal the CPF team strives to achieve: assist stricken communities by getting their most-needed facilities back in operation as soon as possible.
Following the Aug. 8 wildfire that devastated the town of Lāhainā on Maui, FEMA requested a USACE CPF team for planning assistance. Beginning Aug. 18, a four-member team from various USACE districts, consisting of Jason Ritter, Cecily Solomon, Joe King, and Brian Murphy, deployed to Hawai'i to answer the call.
Importantly, the CPF team brings to the Hawai'i wildfires mission a wealth of knowledge and experience with 35-plus deployments among its members.
Ritter alone has deployed at least 20 times. A subject matter expert with the CPF team (and chief of Emergency Management back in his home district), he explained, depending on the nature of a disaster and what has been destroyed, CPF teams may need to establish anywhere from one to several facilities and everything from temporary hospitals, to police and fire stations, schools and more.
Following the Lāhainā fires, officials directed the CPF team to help them plan to get children back into classrooms.
“The first step is to meet with local officials and determine which facilities the local community needs most,” said Ritter. “In this case, it was determined our priority will be helping plan for a temporary school."
With Lāhainā’s King Kamehameha III Elementary School destroyed in the wildfires, the CPF team is currently working with the state and county to determine a temporary solution for approximately 700 kindergarten through fifth-grade students — and to do it as soon as possible.
“We’re taking a look at the kind of facility they’re looking for, their needs and requirements, and possible locations for the school. In general, once we get a mission assignment, we look at getting cleared environmentally, determine where utilities are going to go, and assess the general layout. From there, we can start working on design,” said Ritter.
The team lead, Solomon, looked forward to moving forward with a potential mission. Having also deployed several times on missions such as flood-fighting in Arkansas, and a Blue Roof mission in New Orleans, this is her first mission as action officer and team lead.
“Even though I’ve been on other deployments, this is a learning experience for me. I’m thankful my team members have a wealth of knowledge and experience. They are helping me get up to speed and ensure all the codes are met as we move forward,” she said.
While each individual on the CPF team volunteered separately to work on the Hawai'i wildfires mission, their reasons echo one another for doing so.
“There’s a lot of gratification in helping,” said Ritter. “And this is one of the few jobs in the Corps where you can see something completed in a short amount of time. A lot of projects take years or an entire career. Here we can see something completed, and ultimately, get to help people.”
Murphy, on his tenth deployment, seeks to help his fellow citizens in their time of need.
“I felt compelled to help because this was such a horrific event with such a staggering human toll. … I wanted to be a small part of the recovery and restoration efforts to help my fellow citizens in their time of need,” he said.
Solomon summed it up succinctly: “It gives me joy to know that I can help in some small way.”