Fort Leonard Wood Soldiers head east to help with hurricane aftermath
December 6, 2012
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FORT LEONARD WOOD, Miss. (Dec. 6, 2012) -- When Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern United States in late October, Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood answered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers call for help.
In all, 30 Fort Leonard Wood Soldiers, 26 Engineers and four Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Soldiers, dropped what they were doing on post and volunteered their Army expertise to help the people left distressed in the hurricane's aftermath.
Capt. Jonathan Olbert, U.S. Army Engineer Captains' Career Course student, was supposed to start class on Nov. 2, but when he heard the East Coast's cry for help he knew he had to go. He worked with the Philadelphia Operations Center for two weeks.
"I was part of the Defense CBRN Response Force mission in my old unit. It's a unit that would respond to natural or manmade disaster where a great number of people were affected. I knew if I didn't man-up at a time like this it would say something negative about my character. I was more than willing to give up my Captains' Career Course position to respond to help Americans in a time of need," Olbert said.
His mission was to support USACE in tracking and coordinating efforts to make sure all the assets needed were deployed to the field, while providing commanders with up to the minute information in order to help them make educated decisions.
"Most of the personnel that we worked with are USACE employees. We provided the battle tracking. Many of them don't have an emergency mentality; they are not at a heightened state of awareness. We provided the communication between the employees and the high level commanders. We maintained a constant flow of information. Most of us have been on missions where we have to track personnel, equipment and the status of the operation. That's exactly what we did on the East Coast," Olbert said.
His Army training helped him facilitate getting power back to hospitals, elderly care facilities, wastewater operations and gas stations.
Olbert said his team pulled long shifts and ate poorly because they were so focused on getting work done, but it was worth it.
"Communication was poor when we got there, so the guys we sent out were working 20-hour days while taking naps in their vans. It was a team effort," Olbert said. "No matter how inconvenienced we might have been by leaving our Families or losing a school position, it was nothing compared to the people we were there to serve. They lost their homes; they had no power or food. Some of them didn't even know what was going on. That's frightening for them. To help them out and provide comfort to American citizens in a time of need is our duty."
Olbert was most impacted by the devastation he witnessed in New Jersey.
"I saw some government assisted living where about 170 families were without power with flooded basements and living in unsanitary conditions. They didn't have money to store up food, and it was getting cold, so we were looking at a situation where a lot of people in a concentrated area were in desperate need for our help," Olbert said. "I saw areas where barrier islands had whole sections completely breached and washed away. Sections of 30 or so houses just disappeared as they were washed into the main bay and entire strips of island were left cut-off from the world. Through our efforts we were able to bring roughly 5,000 truckloads of sand in about 18 hours to bridge a gap, allowing emergency crews to get to the isolated areas. The Nor'easter was coming and we had to access the damage quickly to get assets out there."
Another volunteer, Capt. John Peters, Company A, 84th Chemical Battalion commander, worked in several areas around New York to include Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island during the first two weeks of November.
"I was assigned to the USACE Task Force Debris. I operated as a Hazardous Materials subject matter expert as well as assisting in setting up and operating Temporary Storage Sites," Peters said.
The TSSs were used as a temporary staging area for debris that had been cleared from roads, beaches and other public spaces. From the TSS, the debris was off loaded onto a barge to be taken to a landfill.
According to USACE, as of Nov. 13, crews had cleared about 20,680 cubic yards of debris from storm-damaged areas.
"I volunteered because there are not many opportunities for active-duty Soldiers to get to help out in disaster recovery operations helping American citizens. The USACE is the only organization in the Department of Defense with an assignment in the National Response Framework," Peters said. "Being attached to USACE allowed us to help them in their mission of debris removal."
Peters described the level of destruction he witnessed as widespread. While traveling between the different debris sites he saw hundreds of houses every day completely destroyed.
"I was on an aerial survey that lasted for two hours and saw miles and miles of destruction. That was when I realized how much destruction a storm that wasn't even a CAT 1 hurricane could do. In every load of debris I saw some Families' personal life being thrown away. I saw photos, photo albums, furniture, and clothes. I saw houses that had been moved 20 feet off their foundations. There were cars completely covered in mud and debris on the inside," Peters said.
Many of the homeowners and workers weren't wearing any protective gear while handling the debris. Peters tried to educate the civilians about the chemical hazards they were coming into contact with. He was pleased to see that the longer he was there, the more people he saw wearing masks and gloves.
Peters said he is grateful that the U.S. Army CBRN Captains' Career Course taught him about the National Response Framework, the National Incident Management System and hazardous materials.
"The training enabled me to quickly integrate myself into the response effort. It helped me understand the different roles and responsibilities of the local, state and federal agencies I was working with on a daily basis," he said.
Two more Fort Leonard Wood Soldiers worked on the Joint Task Force Unwatering, one of them was Capt. Keith Alaniz, 169th Engineer Battalion, S3 Operations.
"Capt. (Kimberly) Jung and myself were battle captains for Joint Task Force Unwatering. We were initially located in Battery Park, Manhattan and then moved to the USACE New York District Headquarters at 26 Federal Plaza once major pumping operations came to a close," Alaniz said.
They were responsible for reporting to the New York City Office of Emergency Management, USACE North Atlantic Division and USACE Headquarters.
"I was fortunate to have had experience working with USACE during my last deployment. This allowed me to 'speak the language' and understand project management and contracting. My preparation for the professional engineer exam was invaluable. Little did I know while studying that I would be using pump and work rate calculations during the largest unwatering operation in history," Alaniz said.
Alaniz said volunteering was an easy decision for him because he had Family affected by the hurricane and he was eager to put his Army knowledge to work.
"My sister lives in New York City and had been stranded on Manhattan since the hurricane hit," Alaniz said. "I had just completed my professional engineer exam the week earlier and when I heard they were sending captains to New York to help, I jumped at the opportunity. I also thought that after six months of studying for the professional engineer exam, this would be a great way to apply my skills to help U.S. citizens."
He was touched by the response his team got from the people they were helping.
"The gratitude that the people of New York City showed was overwhelming. They truly appreciated us coming to help. Also, on a personal note, I know my sister was grateful that one of the tunnels to Brooklyn was finally unwatered and allowed her to go home," Alaniz said.
Also working with Alaniz for two weeks was Capt. Kimberly Jung, 1st Engineer Brigade, S3 Operations assistant. Jung said the first few days were tough.
"It was a bit eerie because there was no power in that area of Manhattan except for our own generators powering the trailers but soon Manhattan got back on its feet," Jung said. "There was even some partnership involved between USACE and New York City. We would have a few pumps on Governor's Island pumping the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, while on the Manhattan side of the tunnel the Metropolitan Transit Authority would have their pumps."
Jung worked with 18 inch and 12 inch pumps and anywhere from five to 15 pumps were at each of their 13 sites; Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Montague Tunnel, Amtrak, 14th Street-Canarsie, Queens Midtown Tunnel, 53rd Street, World Trade Center and Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. The pumps were rated at 8,000 gallons per minute.
Jung said it was a pleasure to be able to help out even if it was hard work.
"It is their homes and neighborhoods that must be cleaned up and subway systems that people rely on every day to go to work that must be de-flooded. I hope the people of New York know that there are some really tough-minded people who worked extremely hard and didn't sleep for several days in order to get the subways and tunnels back on track."
She was amazed by the resiliency of New Yorkers.
"One day I saw dark, empty sky rises and a week later a normal bustling work day full of people in Wall Street," Jung said.
Jung was also impressed by the generosity of New Yorkers.
"We didn't have food for the first few days. Some nice business or organizations made sure to send us coffee in the mornings and big Italian dinners," Jung said.