SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began clearing debris this week from seven educational facilities that had been used by local governments as temporary disposal sites for debris from schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The debris will be removed and transported to landfills for permanent disposal, or, in the case of vegetative debris, removed and processed into mulch.

Hurricane Maria created an estimated 6.2 million cubic meters of debris across Puerto Rico, an amount that would fill nearly 2,000 Olympic swimming pools. As tasked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, USACE is responsible for managing approximately two-thirds of that debris. The mission includes collecting debris from curbsides, separating and processing the debris by type, and ensuring the debris is permanently disposed of in a safe manner.

While curbside debris collection continues, FEMA, in coordination with local authorities, has directed USACE to also clear debris from certain temporary disposal sites. These sites were used by local governments after the storm to temporarily stockpile debris until it could be sorted for permanent disposal.

One such site is the Office for the Improvement of Public Schools of Puerto Rico (OMEP) in Bayamón. USACE operations began at the site Jan. 17, with five contractor trucks hauling debris.

"This is our first day on site, so we're trying to work out the bugs per se and get it running safely and smoothly so as to be as efficient as possible and get this beautiful place back to the way it was," said Seth Finn, a quality assurance specialist (QA) for the USACE debris management mission in Puerto Rico.

Finn, from the USACE Louisville District, has been a QA for construction for 13 years. He said safety is the first thing he looks to establish at a new work site, including assessing and adjusting the traffic patterns for trucks to be safely loaded with debris. He also looks at the type of material being hauled and the equipment being used, speaks with equipment operators, and coordinates with the contractor's quality control specialist.

"You can throw me at anything, I've done this for so long. I know what the basics are, I know how to implement safety, and how to put the general parameters in place to get it turned around in a timely manner. It's what we do," he said. "It's general logistics. Every site is different so you have to just adapt accordingly."

Before setting up USACE operations at the OMEP site, Finn was working as a QA with the contractor street crews cleaning up debris from neighborhoods. He said the residents have been very gracious and welcoming to the crews.

"It's amazing. It's almost like a parade going down the street," he said. "We had people out on their balconies screaming, yelling, people coming out of their houses offering us cups of coffee. It was very humbling."