Local government liaisons are critical link to community in aftermath of Maui wildfires

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Honolulu District
Published Oct. 3, 2023
Two people talk with a man across the table from them.

Local government liaisons, Franchesca Gilbert (left) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Readiness Support Center, and Paul Fleming (right) from the St. Paul District, discuss private property debris removal with a Lahaina resident who was impacted by the Aug. 8 wildfires at a Disaster Recovery Center at the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawai'i, Sept. 27. Local government liaisons are an important component in USACE’s whole-of-government, community-focused approach during a disaster response. (U.S. Army photo by Katie Newton)

A man talks to two other people across the table from him.

C.J. Hamilton, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers local government liaison, discusses private property debris removal with community members at the Disaster Recovery Center at the Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawai'i, Sept. 30. Local government liaisons are an important component in USACE’s whole-of-government, community-focused approach during a disaster response. (U.S. Army photo by Katie Newton)

A woman sits and works at a computer next to another woman who is working at a computer.

Nicole Govan, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers local government liaison, discusses upcoming community outreach events with her counterparts at the emergency field office in Lahaina, Hawai'i, Sept. 25. Local government liaisons are an important component in USACE’s whole-of-government, community-focused approach during a disaster response. (U.S. Army photo by Katie Newton)

Personal connections are critical in helping communities recover after a disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a 40-person team of local government liaisons, known as LGLs, that specialize in facilitation and can provide a direct link between the local community and the federal response.

“We’re essentially the communication link between the Corps of Engineers and survivors,” said Paul Fleming, senior engineering technician from the St. Paul District who deployed to Maui in support of the Hawai'i wildfires response. “We’re a conduit for bringing USACE and other governmental information to the local level and then also bringing issues at the local level back to our leadership.”

Fleming says having LGLs in the community working at the county level helps to build strong relationships, enabling the recovery effort to flow seamlessly.

“We help put an actual human face on a major recovery effort and that helps bring peace of mind to people because they are being personally taken care of,” said Fleming.

Fleming and three other LGLs are currently stationed throughout Maui following devastating wildfires that ravaged the towns of Lahaina, Kula and Olinda in early August.

In addition to Fleming, the four-person team is comprised of Nicole Govan, a natural resource specialist from the Pittsburgh District, C.J. Hamilton, a former Operations Manager who has continued to volunteer as an LGL since his retirement from the Huntington District two years ago, and veteran LGL Franchesca Gilbert, Emergency Management Standardization Program Manager with the USACE Readiness Support Center.

Despite their different backgrounds, their goal is the same—to help survivors recover, and LGLs say face-to-face communication is key in that recovery process.

“We help people feel more connected than they normally would be,” said Govan. “If somebody from the county has a question, rather than e-mailing them, we go talk to them face to face. We show them more respect being in person. If you’re actually going to talk to them, they have a better sense of trust.”

Govan is serving in the Maui County Emergency Operations Center. There, she has direct contact with local, state and federal agencies and officials all in one place and is also able to network with representatives from volunteer organizations, who often help support broader recovery missions.

Gilbert said having the LGLs on the ground allows USACE to plug in and connect directly with the community.

“We have the pulse of the community, from leaders to survivors,” said Gilbert. “We’re able to quickly identify trouble spots that we can take to the commander or FEMA so we can eliminate any breakdowns in communication immediately. We can help because we are in the field helping those people and we’re hearing it directly from them.”

Building trust at all levels is vital during a disaster recovery mission.

“The most challenging part is when you come into a situation and have to quickly build trust with everyone you meet, whether it’s local, county emergency managers, the public, or even our own teammates. Making sure you’re able to build high-level trust with everyone you communicate with quickly, can be challenging,” said Gilbert.

LGLs must also be empathetic and flexible to meet the needs of the community.

“Everybody is experiencing the disaster in their own way, and we have to help and interact with each person,” said Fleming. “Our job changes on a daily basis, or really an hour-to-hour basis. Everyone we meet has different needs and different priorities, and we have to serve everyone in the way they need it.”

For Govan, that means attempting to see things from a survivor’s perspective.

“The most challenging thing for me is to go into the affected areas and see the aftermath of what people have just experienced prior to me getting there and imagining the emotions they had during that experience,” said Govan. “It’s challenging to put myself in their shoes. I just do my best to connect with them even though I have never personally been through what they are going through.”

“I think the most important thing we can do is to listen and be empathetic about what they’ve gone through,” said Govan. “I want to help give them confidence in USACE and explain all of the avenues we have to help them.”

Hamilton agrees.

“For us, it means we speak less, listen more, and try to connect in any way we can,” he said.

It is clear to the team on the ground, that this disaster response is vastly different than previous disasters, in more ways than one.

Hamilton joined the LGL cadre when it formed in 2006 following the 2005 Hurricane season which included Katrina, Wilma and Rita. He said the team has responded to 23 events since then, two of which have been in response to wildfires.

“What makes this disaster response so unique for the LGLs is realizing the extent of the cultural impacts upon the community and the deep sense of, essentially, a loss of part of their history,” said Hamilton.

Gilbert, who has 11 disaster duty deployments under her belt, says nothing compares to the devastation on Maui.

“This is the most devastation I’ve ever seen in one spot,” said Gilbert who has deployed for historic hurricanes, flooding and wildfires over the last 20 years. “The level of devastation and loss is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. To see it all compacted like that. This is an entire community, with so much rich history, and it’s just…gone.”

The team says the key aspect that sets this disaster apart is the unparalleled sense of community found on Maui.

“What has been overwhelming to me is that so many survivors, despite the enormity of their loss, have been entirely warm and embracing and what a tribute to their culture that is,” said Hamilton.

Gilbert shared about her first community event after arriving on Maui—a town hall event with more than 600 Lahaina residents in attendance.
“The town hall began by reminding you why you were here, with a moving tribute of the lives that were lost, and it ended with everyone holding hands and singing a song of unification. It was a sense of reinforcing that we’re all here, together. The mayor said ‘It’s going to take everybody. Everybody has a role in this recovery.’ It was reinforced with the action of holding hands and raising those hands up. Everyone was engaged. In that moment, it transcended your beliefs. In that moment, your belief was in each other and how we’re going to help rebuild Maui.”

Govan said it was a moving tribute that left a lasting impression.

“After being at that town hall and seeing everybody hold hands and come together like that, it made me wish that I could live in a place that has that kind of connectivity. In the end, they all have each other and that’s what matters most.”

The team says this disaster will forever leave a mark on everyone who plays a role in it, and they hope to make a meaningful impact in return.
“My goal is to make a difference—even if it’s just to one individual,” said Govan.

Gilbert echoed that sentiment.

“If you can walk off the airplane at home and know you have helped at least one person on their road to recovery by putting them in touch with resources…that is a success,” she said.