PONCE, Puerto Rico. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transferred 19 vessels damaged by September's hurricanes from the U.S. Coast Guard to contractors for disposal in Ponce, Puerto Rico on January 26-27.

Monitored by Coast Guard and Corps representatives, contractors rigged the vessels with web slings, then a crane slowly lifted them off a barge one at a time and placed them on waiting trucks.

"The marine debris mission is unique to me because it is a tag team effort between the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard," Corps debris specialist Shanon Soileau said. "The Coast Guard transfers ownership of the boat to the [Corps' marine debris] contractor."

The marine debris mission across Puerto Rico has transferred 53 vessels so far, according to Jasmine Smith, Puerto Rico Recovery Field Office debris mission manager deployed from the New Orleans District. The mission may involve disposal of 172 vessels based on Coast Guard estimates.

The Corps of Engineers is the Federal Emergency Management Agency's lead for Emergency Support Function 3 (ESF 3), Public Works and Engineering, after a federally declared natural or manmade disaster. Debris missions under ESF 3 often include vegetation brought down by storms, construction and demolition materials and "white goods," which includes household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines.

Safety is a high priority throughout the marine debris transfer process. Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Martin Sewell closely monitored the vessels' movement from barge to the trucks waiting on the pier. "I want to ensure safe working practices and prevent anything that may be dangerous," he said.

During the transfer process, Seattle District's Josh Erickson also inspected contractors' compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Besides marine debris, Erickson also visits sites where work is underway on other tasks assigned by FEMA to the Corps, including temporary blue roof installations, temporary power and the more traditional three debris categories.

Erickson said that working in a setting where Spanish is the primary language has made the Puerto Rico mission unique. He thinks that the safety team "is the voice that reminds our workers and contractors to slow down - the job is not worth getting hurt over -- plan your work and use the right tools the right way."

"Being deployed to Puerto Rico has been a very rewarding and educating experience for me," Soileau said. When he's not deployed to manage Corps debris missions in the Ponce area, he works for the New Orleans District in the Atchafalaya Basin. "I have met and worked with a lot of local people and they have all been very appreciative and happy that the Corps of Engineers is here helping to get things cleaned up."