In March, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Chief of Engineers for the U.S. Army and 54th Commanding General of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was getting ready for a well-deserved retirement after having served in the high-profile position since 2016. Then the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic came into focus.
“I was going to retire on a Thursday. It was Tuesday morning of that week when the White House called the Secretary of Defense and said, ‘Hey, we want to keep LTG Semonite on indefinitely,’ ” says Semonite, who recently joined WSP as its president of the federal programs business. “We were very honored to stay on board for another four and a half months and continued to get the COVID facilities completed.”
Under Semonite’s command, the USACE immediately began assessing sites for possible use as alternate care facilities (ACFs) for COVID-19 patients. The Corps eventually handled or assisted with the construction of 62 different facilities and 15,074 beds in states with critical shortages during the first few months of the pandemic. FEMA funded the emergency builds. The initial USACE plan was to prepare facilities to handle overflow from hospitals.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked President Donald Trump for the first ACF at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Semonite flew to meet with Cuomo and discuss the scope of the mission: using existing facilities that could be converted into ACFs for COVID and non-COVID uses. The Javits Center was operational within two weeks of assessing its suitability for patient care.
“One of the biggest things that I’m proud of in my four years is that you don’t wait for the phone to ring when something goes wrong: Be ahead of it,” Semonite says.
USACE tasked the leadership of the Corps’ Huntsville Medical Center of Expertise in coming up with options for the ACFs. Two were spaces that could handle COVID patients and two were for non-COVID patients. The options expanded from convention centers such as the Javits Center and sport arenas to small facilities such as hotel rooms and dormitories. As contracts were awarded and facilities were built or reconfigured, Semonite and his team traveled to other locales to meet with officials, assess their needs and share recommendations. Closed medical facilities that could be brought back into service and small hotels were ideal sites.
The cost of converting the 64 ACFs that USACE delivered was $1.8 billion, 75% of which was covered by FEMA’s budget and the remaining 25% was paid by the state and local authorities. Many contractors worked with mechanical trade contractors to install HVAC and forced air systems to allow negative air pressure and piped-in oxygen to treat patients with advanced COVID-19 symptoms.
On March 29, at the White House, Trump said, “I’d like to congratulate the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and everybody else in the federal government, working with state government, on the incredible job that the Army Corps and FEMA did on building the hospital in New York at the Javits Center. I want to thank, in particular, General Semonite.”
Semonite, who retired in September, was named in January 2021, president of WSP USA's federal programs unit.