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New York Joins Army Corps Wildfire Response: A Close Look at a Challenging Mission

US Army Corps of Engineers, New York District
Published Dec. 11, 2023

Damaged buildings and vehicles in the wildfires in Lahaina, Maui, after the fire. Members of Combined Joint Task Force-50 from the Hawaii Army and Air National Guard, U.S. Army Active Duty and Reserve supported Maui County authorities to provide immediate security, safety and well-being to those affected by the wildfires to ensure unwavering support for the community of Maui and first responders. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Sean Walker)


New York District Project Manager Jason Shea (right) with Army Corps colleagues responding to the wild fires on the Hawaiian Island of Maui.


Kirk Hamlin, FEMA VIP Coordinator for the Maui Wildfires Disaster, provides an update to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General and 55th Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon in Lahaina, Hawaii. (U.S. Army photo by Katie Newton)

Jason Shea, a project manager with the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has recently completed a one month deployment to Hawaii supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) response to the Lahaina wildfires on the island of Maui ─ the second-largest Hawaiian Island in the North Pacific Ocean.

Shea served as an Assistant Team Leader who, along with a Team Leader, manage Army Corps missions for FEMA: 1) Critical Public Facilities (building a temporary school); 2) Temporary Housing (constructing group-housing sites); and 3) Debris Removal (clearing debris from nearly 2,000 structures destroyed by the fire.) Working from the Joint Field Office in Honolulu ─ a 40-minute flight from the affected area on Maui ─ Shea collaborates with other federal and state agencies.  

Visiting Lahaina

Visiting Lahaina for the first time, he gave this sobering description: “It’s devastating. Entire neighborhoods have burned to the ground. I’ve seen neighborhoods reduced to foundations in other [Army Corps] missions, but this one feels different: prior to a hurricane, most people can evacuate. Here, there was very little time for people to escape and many did not survive. It’s very sad.”

New York District Commander Col. Alexander Young said: “First and foremost, our hearts go out to all those who lost loved ones and homes. The Army Corps is doing everything possible to bring relief and comfort to people and communities suffering such terrible loss. It’s a challenging mission that has our full support.”

$1 Billion in Resources

Army Corps personnel and federal agencies have been helping the affected District (USACE-Hawaii)  the past few months since the August 8 wildfires; they will be present until local authorities can assume responsibility. The Army Corps response ─ all District’s combined ─ is a $1 billion effort handling the vast majority of FEMA’s work assignments (normally, the Army Corps takes on about half of FEMA’s response.)  

Shea’s responsibilities ─ estimating funding needs/request for funds, moving funding for contracts and labor, and managing schedules ─ are similar to those he executes as project manager in New York. However, Jason indicated the pace is much faster, making it a demanding, pressure-filled, seven-day-a week effort. He reports to three entities: FEMA, Army Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Army Corps’ Honolulu District Commander Col. Christopher Pevey. 

Jason has responded to emergencies throughout his career, first for Hurricane Katrina in 2005 then Hurricane Sandy in 2012 as New York’s liaison officer for the  New Jersey Infrastructure Systems/ Recovery Support Function. Others include: Hurricane Harvey (2017); Super Typhoon Yutu (2018-19); COVID (2020); Hurricane Ida (2021); and Hurricane Ian (2022). 

Massive Response

In all, 16 Army Corps Districts are involved in the response from the U.S. and Europe: Honolulu, Galveston, Fort Worth, Huntington, New York, St. Paul, Rock Island, Far East, Nashville, Jacksonville, Sacramento, Savannah, Mobile, Seattle, Albuquerque and Vicksburg, encompassing 80+ personnel. Shea has been working with staff from several Districts.

Temporary Housing     

Earlier this fall the Army Corps received the temporary housing mission assignment ─ designing sites for FEMA that will prepare the site and install utility infrastructure for temporary housing units for those displaced by the wildfires. USACE is also contributing plans, specifications and construction management activities, and have completed surveys for potential sites identified by FEMA. This is a large effort: nearly 6,000 people ─ now staying in hotels and short-term rentals ─ were displaced by the fires.

Temporary School

A second assignment is being executed by the Corps’ Critical Public Facilities Team assisting the State of Hawaii in planning a temporary school for children attending King Kamehameha III Elementary School that was completely destroyed. Now under construction near the Kapalua Airport in West Maui, in the coming months students and staff will relocate there. Col. Jesse T. Curry, Recovery Field Office Commander for the Corps of Engineers, said it will take roughly three months  to complete.

“Our goal is to complete this as quickly as possible,” said Col. Curry, adding, “The children of Lahaina have gone through heartbreaking trauma, and the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Defense, and our partners are proud to play a small role in bringing back a bit of normalcy to these young lives.”

Debris Removal Mission

A third mission is debris removal ─ a massive task removing debris from thousands of structures. Media outlets have reported it could take 6-12 months to clear the debris from the affected area, complicated by the presence of hazardous materials. To that end, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency personnel are coating the debris with a stabilizing solution to minimize airborne particles  during removal. In coordination with the County of Maui and State of Hawaii, the EPA will survey, remove and dispose of hazardous material from all properties impacted by the wildfires in Lahaina, Kula and Olinda.

Cultural Awareness & Sensitivity

Beyond FEMA missions, the Army Corps is incorporating cultural awareness and sensitivity to the debris-removal mission: creating a cultural oversight team and cultural-resources service contract ─ the first of its kind for a debris-removal mission. USACE has contracted a Cultural Hui (team) of community leaders, cultural practitioners, architects and archaeologists to ensure a culturally-sensitive execution of the debris-removal mission.

Jessie Pa‘ahana, environmental coordinator, Honolulu District, is serving as cultural liaison for USACE’s disaster response. Recognizing the rich culture and history of Maui and other affected communities, Pa’ahana’s goal is to blend the expertise of local community and cultural leaders with USACE’s debris-removal efforts.

In a news article Pa’ahana said: “I am focused on the Corps’ intent to do right, or ‘pono’ by the indigenous and local culture, which is really a melting pot of cultures. “We [Army Corps] want to do this right as an organization so I am looking to the source, consulting with community and cultural leaders such as Native Hawaiian Organizations on what ‘right’ is to them, the people and all the cultures in the affected communities.”

Early Response

During the fires in August, the Army Corps’ Temporary Power Planning and Response Team deployed immediately to provide generators servicing water wells allowing firefighters continuous access to water to bring fires under control. Generators were installed at waste-water pump stations to prevent contaminated water from polluting the public water supply, and at the Lahaina Civic and Health Centers allowing personnel to continue recovery operations. In all, the team spent nearly two months on the island installing some 20 generators.

Earlier this fall, Army Corps 55th Commanding General and Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon visited the affected areas on Maui to oversee response efforts and receive briefings from officials. He recognized many Army Corps personnel with Commander’s Coins ─ a symbol of professional excellence ─ for their outstanding work.