When two Category 5 hurricanes decimated the Virgin Islands in late summer, the Wilmington Army Corps of Engineers was tapped to lead the recovery efforts. Months later, those efforts are far from complete but are starting to wind down.
More than 170 temporary emergency generators were installed at schools, hospitals, clinics, government buildings and other facilities across the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. At the end of December, more than 25 of those generators had been deinstalled as power was restored.
Of an estimated 850,000 cubic yards of debris, more than 390,000 cubic yards have been picked up. The cleanup should be completed by March, officials said.
Asking the Wilmington team to lead the Virgin Islands recovery was not the original plan. The Corps’ Jacksonville District has responsibility for Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and its home state of Florida. But when three hurricanes hit weeks apart, the district in Mobile, Alabama, took over support for Puerto Rico, while Wilmington was assigned to the Virgin Islands.
For Col. Robert Clark, who began to command the Wilmington District in July, it was a swift introduction to the civil works side of the Army Corps of Engineers. Clark hunkered down with 79 other Corps members as Hurricane Maria’s 185-mph winds ripped St. Croix. All emerged unharmed but transfixed by the devastation.
Clark, who spent 22 years on the military side of the Corps, described his transition to managing on the nonmilitary side. “On the troop side, the higher up you go, you eventually become the subject matter expert. Now it’s flipped 180 degrees. I am probably the least knowledgeable person in the room. It takes a lot of talent management,” he said.
Of the 400-person Wilmington team, only three are military officers with the balance being civilian engineers. With hurricane recovery work receding, the focus is now on local tasks.
“Our largest current projects include military construction and modernization at Fort Bragg and the Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point. We’re also working on beach renourishment, maintaining the ICW [Intracoastal Waterway] channels and the Wilmington and Morehead City harbors,” Clark said.
The Wilmington District budget for 2018 includes about $125 million for civil projects and about $200 million for military projects. Most projects are contracted out, with the Corps overseeing the work, except for one in-house capability unique to Wilmington: a four-vessel shallow water dredge fleet.
The craft are deployed throughout the East and Gulf coasts from Maine to Texas. The newest vessel can move up to 12 cubic yards of material per minute and can work in waters only 5 feet deep. Given the perpetual shifting sands caused by strong currents and storms, the vessels are in constant demand. The dredges work seven days a week with crews on 12- hour shifts.
Handling 8 million tons of cargo annually arriving on massive freighters at its port, Wilmington requires a depth of 44 feet over the ocean bar at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. From Southport to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, a 42-foot channel must be maintained. Morehead City’s deep draft port requires various depths up to 47 feet. For 2018, the Corps has budgeted $14.7 million for the Wilmington Harbor and $5.6 million for Morehead City.
These expenditures pale in comparison to the total $5 billion 2018 budget for the Corps’ Civil Works Division that employs 33,000 civilians and 800 military personnel. Nationally, $2 billion of the budget is dedicated to inland and coastal navigation projects. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a Fortune 500 company, it would rank No. 112 in money obligated per fiscal year.
The Corps is also tasked with cleanup of toxic sites both locally and nationally. This year, $118 million is earmarked for 19 sites contaminated by nuclear weapons testing in the mid-20th century. In the Wilmington area, the Corps is supporting the EPA at the former Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp. Superfund site in Navassa. The soil, sediment and groundwater are impacted by creosote- related contaminants. That groundwater flows to the Brunswick River. Funding for the project totals $92.5 million.
The Wilmington District is also supporting construction of facilities for the Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. At the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU), work on a wharf expansion, piling repair and dredging make up another key project for this year.
MOTSU is the largest military munitions terminal in the world. The facility ships 90 percent of all containerized ammunition for U.S. overseas military operations and can handle up to six ships simultaneously.
Just as the Wilmington District works on a diverse number of projects, the Corps has a wide-ranging portfolio. Founded in 1775, the Corps can take credit for building the Washington Monument, Panama Canal, Kennedy Space Center, Library of Congress and Lincoln Memorial.
Whatever future civil works projects are thrown at Clark locally, he said he is confident that he’ll have the support to get the job done.
“I learned from the Virgin Islands experience that the Corps is a vast, diverse enterprise, and there is very little that we can’t do. I could get resources from anywhere. We had a core employee from every one of the Corps’ 43 U.S. districts involved in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
As for new projects, Clark said he is looking to support the Wilmington District’s key role.
“Our primary mission involves water management,” he said. “We’re looking at developing a comprehensive flood management plan for all of North Carolina and southern Virginia and not just focusing on individual projects.”