By Rebecca NappiOctober 26, 2017
ST. CROIX, USVI - Schools across St. Croix opened their doors for the first time since Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island, thanks in part to temporary emergency power, temporary roofing and infrastructure assessments completed by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.
Schools throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands were not exempt from Hurricanes Irma and Maria's Category 5 destructive winds. With damaged roofs, complete loss of power, water damage and more, schools were in no shape for students.
The U.S. Virgin Islands government determined schools to be critical infrastructure, which allowed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to call in its engineers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to assess school building infrastructures, deliver temporary power and install temporary roofing where needed across the territory.
"You could tell from talking with them that the children really want to be back in school," said John Bartel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mission Specialist for Operations. "It was so enjoyable to see them return because of our efforts."
In any disaster, the Corps of Engineers' three top priorities are to support immediate emergency response priorities, sustain lives with critical commodities such as temporary emergency power and initiate recovery efforts by assessing and restoring critical infrastructure.
Providing temporary roofing, temporary emergency power and infrastructure assessment to public schools is not a usual mission function the Corps provides during its relief efforts, but after the resources for these efforts could not be established on any of the islands, the Corps was tasked with the mission.
"This is an excellent example of how the Corps works to fill the gaps during a disaster," said Captain Eric Nowak, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Task Force U.S. Virgin Islands Battle Captain.
The Juanita Gardine Elementary in St. Croix saw sections of roof blown off during the storms, leaving a math classroom, bathroom, cafeteria and gymnasium with skylights to the elements. The Corps provided temporary blue roofs to these areas, allowing students and teachers to inhabit and utilize these areas until permanent repairs can be made.
The Corps Infrastructure Assessment team completed more than 20 school infrastructure assessments that reported to the Department of Education concerning facility safety and building integrity.
Operation Blue Roof, which provides temporary roofing to homeowners with storm damaged roofs, is typically provided to private residences. But with schools in need, the Corps roofing team prioritized damaged schools that were schedule to reopen.
With temporary roof protection in place, the Corps provided temporary emergency power by installing 30 FEMA generators into the schools. This allowed schools to not only have working lights and electronics throughout their facilities, but it also allowed school cafeterias to be functional. Schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands provide students with daily hot lunches, which after a disaster for some students is their only substantial meal for the day.
"We brought in generators of all sizes to power classrooms, cafeterias and other facilities," said Tonya Combes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mission Power Liaison. "Without power you can't go into a classroom and properly learn because you need power for everything."
With temporary roofs, infrastructure assessments and temporary power complete, more than 2,800 students returned to schools and education facilities across the U.S. Virgin Islands. Students and teachers in education facilities that were deemed non-functional will utilize these Corps assisted facilities. Many schools were so heavily damaged that classes from various schools will share facilities, therefore allowing students to complete their education within a timely manner.
"This non-standard mission has shown the Corps ability to adapt and overcome challenges," Nowak said.