With hurricane season ending on Nov. 30, thoughts of violent tropical storms have been replaced by holiday season plans for most Cape Fear residents. But not everyone.
Lisa Parker recently spent weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands helping with the islands recover from the double barrel blasts from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria that devastated the three main islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
Parker, chief of public affairs, joined about a dozen colleagues from the Army Corps of Engineers’ district office in Wilmington. Her new boss, Col. Robert Clark, took over command of the Wilmington district in July. Two months later his baptism of wind and water ensued.
Clark hunkered down with 79 Corps engineers as Hurricane Maria hit with Category 5 winds in late September.
“We only stayed when we thought we would be safe in a Cat 5. It was a wild ride – like being on a roller coaster. You could hear the roar, but I felt safe,” he said.
Before the storm hit, structural engineers from his team verified that their hotel could handle the 150 mph-plus winds.
Asking the Wilmington team to lead the Virgin Islands recovery was not the original plan. The Corps’ Jacksonville District is tasked with supporting Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and its home state of Florida. With all three hit by storms in late summer, the Mobile, Alabama District took over support for Puerto Rico. And the Wilmington District assumed support lead for the Virgin Islands.
Storm relief by the Corps focused on setting up emergency power, debris removal and operation “blue roof.” Over 3,700 reinforced plastic sheeting roofs were installed as a short-term fix.
“It was meant as a rapid repair to allow people to shelter in place, helping to keep people out of shelters. They’ll transition to a longer-term fix using various FEMA programs,” Clark said.
The Corps has responded by installing 172 temporary generators or 98 percent of the amount requested. Many of those generators have been disconnected as the U.S. Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority has restored most of the grid. The goal is to be 90 percent completed by Christmas, Clark said.
For Clark, who spent 22 years on the military side of the Corps, his hurricane experience accelerated his learning curve regarding the Corps’ Civil Work.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Correction: This version has been updated to describe the material Corps workers used to install as temporary roofs.
For more about Col. Robert Clark’s experiences since taking command of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District and his upcoming goals for the office, pick up an upcoming issue of the Business Journal.