On September 19, the day after Hurricane Fiona made landfall near Punta Tocón, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District Planning and Response Team (PRT) boarded a plane in Atlanta and flew to Puerto Rico.
The team landed in San Juan at 8 p.m., on a mission to install generators and provide temporary emergency power to the island.
Working for FEMA
The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinates within the federal government to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. In the event of a hurricane or other disaster, FEMA tasks other agencies and organizations to help affected areas within the United States as part of the National Response Framework (NRF).
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead agency for Emergency Support Function #3, Public Works and Engineering, under the NRF. As such, USACE provides teams of experts to work under the direction of FEMA and assist in disaster response and recovery. Different USACE districts have teams with unique support specialties, such as Temporary Emergency Power, Debris Management, Temporary Housing & Critical Public Facilities, or Temporary Roofing. The Walla Walla District is one of seven USACE districts with an emergency power team.
Hurricane Fiona began as a tropical wave 1500 miles east of Puerto Rico on September 12, according to the National Hurricane Center. On September 14, Tropical Depression Seven formed and strengthened into a tropical storm within 12 hours. Tropical Storm Fiona became Hurricane Fiona on September 18 and made landfall near Punta Tocón that afternoon as a Category 1 hurricane.
During the storm, Puerto Rico experienced severe rainfall, especially across the western and southwestern regions, where the center of the storm passed. The hurricane left its mark in the form of flash flooding, landslides, fallen trees and broken power lines. Power outages were experienced across the entire island.
Mobilizing the team
On September 14, as the tropical depression was still strengthening, an Advanced Echelon PRT, consisting of Walla Walla Deputy District Commander Maj. Wallace Bandeff, Readiness Chief Luke Fullerton, and Civil Engineer Troy Gilbert, was deployed to Puerto Rico to coordinate with FEMA, the 249th Engineer Battalion and with contractors.
While personnel on the island prepared for the impending storm, FEMA authorized the deployment of a Type III Temporary Emergency Power Team. An additional 15 members of the Walla Walla District PRT deployed Sept. 18, traveling to Atlanta, Georgia until airports could reopen in Puerto Rico. Five more members were sent Sept. 20.
Upon their arrival to the island, Walla Walla PRT members began integrating with responders already on the ground. Some members reported to FEMA’s Initial Operating Facility (IOF) near San Juan, while others traveled south to the Generator Staging Base (GSB) at the Port of Ponce.
Now the mission was underway, with everyone working together.
In the wake of Hurricane Fiona, the 249th Battalion began performing facility assessments as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico submitted assistance requests to FEMA. FEMA began releasing generators to USACE and the GSB came alive with activity. Meanwhile, the IOF received the first prioritized list of generator installations from the Puerto Rico Emergency Management Bureau. The first official generator installation took place at CDT Guánica, an emergency care clinic in southwestern Puerto Rico.
Executing the mission
As the mission ramped up, generators began to disperse with increased speed. A Type III team, once mobilized, can install up to 10 generators a day. Most installations in this instance were performed at water pumps and other water processing facilities.
Three generators were also sent to Vieques, an island just east of the main island of Puerto Rico. The generators were sent via ferry, and transportation required two separate trips over the course of two days. Ultimately, the generators were staged at the local power plant.
At some facilities, there were additional hurdles to restoring power. Some, including Vieques Island, required transformers to step up the power output from the generators. Others were difficult to reach due to landslides or road obstructions.
However, grid power was quickly coming back online. LUMA Energy, Puerto Rico’s power distributor, reported 61% of power was restored across the island on Sept. 26. That day, the power team requested and received permission from FEMA to begin performing generator deinstallations at facilities that had been on grid power for seven days.
During the mission, the President of the United States visited Puerto Rico, taking a short tour of the GSB on Oct. 3. On Oct 11 and 12, Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, USACE Commanding General and 55th Chief of Engineers, also visited the island, touring both the GSB in Ponce and the IOF near San Juan.
Over the course of the 49-day mission, the Walla Walla power team installed 74 FEMA generators, ranging from 20 KW to 2 MW, at public facilities. In total, 9.2 MW of power generation capability were installed.
The team included members from every district within the Northwestern Division, with 26 members from Walla Walla District. The Seattle and Portland districts each contributed two members and the Kansas City and Omaha districts each contributed 1 member.
The GSB in Ponce was officially closed on Nov. 1 after being in operation for 44 days.