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Posted 12/21/2018

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By James D'Ambrosio
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NY District

Several members of the Army Corps’ New York District’s Critical Public Facilities Team deployed to the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) in the North Pacific Ocean. Charged with maintaining life and sustainability functions in federally-declared disaster areas, the team supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency and provided temporary classrooms for 1,500 students. This was done because their schools were severely damaged when 180-MPH winds from Super Typhoon Yutu struck the region in October.

Yutu was the strongest storm to hit a U.S. territory since 1935. Only the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that hit the Florida Keys is believed to have been stronger. The Team mobilized in Saipan, the largest island in the Marianas and performed site assessments and developed and implemented plans, built temporary classrooms until damaged structures were repaired and replaced. A nearby high school accommodated displaced students.

“Anytime you’re entering a disaster area, you’re never quite sure what you’ll find,” said project manager Jason Shea, a mission specialist on the deployment, “The goal was to restore the schools as quickly as possible for a region facing a significant recovery effort.” 

When the team arrived two weeks after the storm, room at the Recovery Field Office was not available, so the team performed work from a hotel lobby, restaurants, college offices, etc. This actually was advantageous, and worked in their favor, developing close working relationships in facilitating planning. When they did move to the field office, much of the groundwork had already been accomplished.

As of mid-December, the mission was an ongoing enterprise ꟷ different personnel with specific expertise deployed as work progresses. The first team that deployed consisted of James Moore, Jason Shea, Allen Roos, Robert Hanna, and Charles Chen who were involved in the planning phase. Different District personnel deployed in December for the second phase, to conduct site preparation and design details. The final phase involves the actual construction scheduled to begin in late December. After construction is completed, the project will be turned over to CNMI for operations and maintenance. 

The team oversaw construction and installation of 66 temporary, 24 x 40-foot classrooms that provide instructional space for students from Hopwood Middle School and Northern Mariana College. The Army Corps is building foundations and configuring all aspects of site preparation including utilities, drainage, grading, and walkways for handicapped access. The goal is to have temporary facilities ready for use in January and February 2019. 

One major obstacle encountered was a lack of electrical power: Two months following the typhoon 20 percent of the island had no electricity. While power was expected to be online when temporary classroom construction was completed, an alternative plan was developed to run classrooms with power generators, if necessary. The Army Corps had 160 generators pre-staged in Guam and Hawaii in anticipation of and prior of Typhoon Yutu making landfall.

A second challenge was logistics. While an initial assessment indicated the island of Saipan had most required resources such as heavy equipment, electrical cable, fencing, plumbing supplies, concrete, etc., some supplies may have to be transported by air or ship from the mainland, which can impact project time lines.

One thing working in their favor is experience. Robert Hanna, site engineer, is applying lessons learned from a similar recovery mission building temporary classrooms in Joplin, MO, in 2012 when a tornado devastated the region and its schools. Hanna knew what to look for in terms of classroom construction and design, determining feasibility based on mission requirements. This facilitated developing a proposal presented to FEMA, the public schools, college and CNMI outlining a construction plan.

DoD Northern Mariana Islands Super Typhoon Yutu USACE USArmy