The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Urban Search and Rescue Cadre completed Haiti disaster recovery work in March - nearly three months after a 7.0 earthquake destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and buildings.

USACE US&R structures specialists keep emergency responders safe while rescuing victims from collapsed buildings and other structures after a disaster strikes.

"We don't want to lose people trying to rescue people, so the engineer experts analyze the structure to find the safest way to sift through rubble. We look at collapse patterns, check for voids that may shelter victims, find ways to temporarily shore up structures, rescue survivors, and remove debris," said Tom Niedernhofer, USACE Urban Search and Rescue program manager at South Pacific Division.

Niedernhofer and 19 other structures specialists went to Haiti to help "de-layer" the Hotel Montana, where U.S. officials believed many U.S. citizens were staying when the quake hit.

The cadre assisted the 20th Engineering Battalion to safely recover victims and repatriate the remains to their families in the U.S. Seventeen survivors were rescued in the first three days of searching.

"The building pancaked during the quake. USACE structures specialists directed a 150-person recovery team on the best way to take it down floor by floor and recover victims," said Niedernhofer.

"We were part of Operation 'Unified Response' which included teams from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and United Nations along with rescue teams from other nations like Canada, Mexico, and France, plus several contractors."

When US&R teams began rescue and recovery operations, 300 people were believed to be inside the Hotel Montana, a five-story hotel that was one of Haiti's premier places to stay for foreign dignitaries.

"The fact that we were able to get the right experts with the right skills, with the right equipment to Haiti within 5 days helped expedite the Hotel Montana recovery. " said Niedernhofer.

The earthquake left much of Haiti's infrastructure destroyed or badly damaged, which impacted the recovery effort in multiple ways.

The cadre trains to work under hazardous conditions and in situations that can quickly turn deadly.

"It is very dangerous, fast moving, and precarious work when you are looking for voids in collapsed structures for victims. We could be in a void or around an unstable structure when an aftershock hits or a tsunami washes ashore," said Niedernhofer. "You are faced with danger, but that's part of the job."

"It was hot, humid, and all around you was devastation - 80 percent of the roads were collapsed. There is a sadness that comes with working in a country with so much devastation."

In Haiti, each team consisted of six structural specialists, rotating on-site at two-week intervals.

When the cadre first got to Haiti, their work included heavy structural assessments which focused on hospitals, dams, and power plants.

After a couple of days, the focus turned to recovery of remains at the Hotel Montana.

"Recovery operations have been extremely difficult and hazardous, but the exceptional teamwork of all parties on-site has already resulted in the majority of the deceased being returned to their loved ones," said Niedernhofer.

<b>About the US&R program</b>

The interagency US&R program includes structural specialists from USACE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and provides support across multiple agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Under the National Response Framework, the USACE US&R cadre evaluates damaged buildings and structures after a disaster strikes in order to reduce risks to rescue personnel and victims during a recovery effort.

The structural specialists component of US&R expanded following the 1984 earthquake in Mexico when 130 rescue workers died trying to rescue people in collapsed buildings.

The USACE US&R program was started in 1991 by U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). Structural engineers from USACE were solicited to support this new initiative under the Federal Response Plan with a goal of providing efficient and effective technical support to FEMA missions.

Teams are trained in structural collapse patterns, hazard identification, building monitoring, rapid building assessment, building triage, marking systems, advance shoring, and shoring calculations.

US&R teams travel with their own gear and equipment and must be ready to work in a variety of situations and climates to accomplish their mission.

Hurricane Andrew, Oklahoma City Bombing, the World Trade Center, and Haiti are a few of the disaster areas where US&R teams have deployed.

Today, there are 28 FEMA national task forces staffed and equipped to conduct round-the-clock, search-and-rescue operations following earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, aircraft accidents, hazardous materials spills and catastrophic structure collapses.

USACE US&R's success in recovery operations illustrates its unique capability as disaster response specialists within the military framework of overseas contingency operations.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16