Corps of Engineers Emergency Response Team workers unload generators in Lakeland, Fla.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been up against a daunting foe in coping with a three-hurricane response. It is engaged in its most complex relief operation since launching its regional emergency management response plan in 1998 to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with disaster relief, say Corps officials. The concept is to pull response expertise and resources from multiple locations, and not necessarily depend on the one division or district closest to the disaster.

This time, the agency has found itself in an extreme version of regional response. The Jacksonville, Fla., district was deployed to handle response along Florida's West Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley. When Hurricane Frances then hit the state's east coast, Jacksonville would have been the logical responder, but the Mobile, Ala., district was dispatched. Then, when Ivan hit Alabama and the Florida panhandle, the Corps' Wilmington, N.C., district was sent to Mobile to handle emergency response. "We looked like an old Twister game," says Allen Morse, a Corps emergency response team leader. Morse was charged with handling Frances response, but had to turn over his responsibilities to return to Mobile to evacuate his own family when Ivan took aim on Alabama.

"The three storms demonstrate the flexibility we have to respond," says Jack Hurdle, disaster program manager for the Corps in Washington, D.C., which is responsible for deploying the proper teams and assets to disaster areas.

Flexible or not, it is still a stressful time for the agency. Not only are members beginning to feel overwhelmed, but resources are stretched. "We’ve used about 95% of our team leaders, assistant team leaders and planning response people for these three storms," says Hurdle. The three storms are an addition to its mission in Iraq. "We have our normal civil work, the war on terror and now three major disasters. We’ve also reduced our size in the last few years, so it has really stressed us," Hurdle says. "It's a difficult time."

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Normally the Corps has a set of procedures that it takes off the shelf and adjusts to fit a disaster. "But this one has thrown us some unique circumstances," Hurdle says, forcing the agency to chart a new path. "We’ll go back afterward and look at what needs to be changed," he says.

One change that may have to be rethought is the Corps' decision in 2001 not to pre-award roofing contracts. "We kept pre-awarded contracts for three years after 1998, but we didn’t use them so we did not renew them. We will have to rethink that,’’ says Hurdle. The agency keeps pre-awarded contracts for ice, water and temporary power.

The Corps lost about five days of work responding to Hurricane Frances because of "Operation Evade Ivan," says Beau Hanna, mission coordinator for Frances. But now the agency has three temporary roofing contractors in place and it has just awarded a fourth contract. "We used large contractors because initially we thought Frances was going to be a catastrophic Category 4 storm," says Hanna. "It turned out to be a less disastrous Category 2."

The original model for Frances showed that 35,000 temporary roofs were needed. The Red Cross estimated only 15,000 would be needed. But no one really knows what the final total will be. "We’ve already collected 10,000 rights-to-entry [property owner consent forms] and we’re signing about 2,000 a day," Hanna says. About 25,000 rights-to-entry were collected for Hurricane Charlie.

The Corps, which acts upon specific requests from FEMA, divides its disaster relief missions into response and recovery. Response includes provision of ice, water and temporary power. That mission is complete for Charlie and Frances and has moved to Ivan. Recovery includes installation of temporary roofing, provision of temporary housing and debris removal.

Under its temporary housing mission, the Corps can locate sites and prepare them for mobile home and travel trailers. It also could receive a mission from FEMA to remove destroyed trailers and rebuild the pads.

(Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)