WASHINGTON -- As power grid restoration efforts continue throughout Puerto Rico, approximately 84 percent of the territory's energy production capability has been restored.
The keys to that success have been the Soldiers and Civilians of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general of the USACE, during Wednesday briefing at the Pentagon.
Over the last year, the Corps has played a vital role in assisting with hurricane response efforts in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida, and with wildfire debris removal throughout northern California.
While the Corps is not doctrinally responsible for power grid restoration, Semonite said that in Puerto Rico, the Corps was asked to take on that role. Limited access to resources on the Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico, he said, prompted the Department of Energy to seek out the help of the Corps.
"You couldn't drive the trucks to Puerto Rico, so this is where the Department of Energy came to us and said, [they] need the Corps to come in and help orchestrate [the effort,]" Semonite said. "So we came in on the eighth day with contractors to start the grid repair."
According to Semonite, the Corps has exceeded their goals to restore 30 percent of the island's power grid by the end of October, and 50 percent by the end of November. By January, the Corps already exceeded their goal of 75 percent. Semonite said he hopes to get to 95 percent by the end of March.
The problem, Semonite said, is closing the last five percent gap, which he said consists of locations that are geographically difficult to power.
As power continues to be restored in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, FEMA and USACE have been working to remove or move generators throughout the region. In turn, out of the 1,667 generators installed in Puerto Rico, 808 are currently still in operation providing micro-grid support until they implement a permanent power option.
"I have had guys on Puerto Rico for 157 days," Semonite said. "That's a lot of days with generators. But that is what's allowed us to get a lot of people with some degree of electricity."
In addition to power generation capabilities, debris removal has been a significant challenge for FEMA and USACE personnel. The Corps has removed from Puerto Rico approximately 83 percent of the debris left as a result of Hurricane Maria, which equates out to 3.24 million cubic yards, Semonite said. In the Virgin Islands, he said, debris removal is at about 75 percent.
"The problem we had in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is the vegetative debris," Semonite said. "There's very little land. We have some areas the size of football fields that have truckloads of debris coming in right now."
Currently, FEMA and USACE are trying to draw support from the Dominican Republic, which utilizes wood chips to fuel their biomass power plant.
"[We're working to] get the people that run the power plant to come over to Puerto Rico and get the wood chips. They take the wood chips back, getting the material off of the island and the locals get their land back," he said.
Running in tandem with debris removal, the Corps also rolled out temporary roofing support throughout the region.
"We found that if you can get a tarp on [a home] in a couple of weeks, even though it has some water damage, you can still save the house," Semonite said.
Contractors have been installing a thin tarp created for disaster relief, referred to as "blue roofs." Currently, these efforts in Puerto Rico are 92 percent complete, while the Virgin Islands is 100 percent complete.
ENGINEERING WEEK -- INSPIRING WONDER
Before Semonite's update about hurricane response and other recovery efforts, the general discussed the current impact of DOD engineering and its ability to generate innovative solutions to current and future problems.
As the chief of engineers, Semonite's area of responsibility is vast. On the one hand, the general works to ensure that the 90,000 Soldiers distributed across more than 20 engineering MOSs receive the proper equipment and training they need to be successful.
On the other hand, Semonite is also is accountable for approximately 37,000 Corps personnel that directly support engineering initiatives throughout the U.S., DOD and other agencies.
Semonite said that while the Corps does a fantastic job today, it is constantly looking towards the future so it can be ready for what comes next.
"We've got to ... try to figure out how do we push the envelope? How do we continue to keep going?" Semonite said.
"We continue to be able to take care of our installations and to be able to make sure that the taxpayer is getting the best value," he said. "That is what engineers have to bring. You just don't build a building. You've got to be able to find a way to deliver a quality product, ahead of schedule and below cost."
Overall, the general said, the Corps' primary responsibility is to deliver a full range of quality products that meet senior leader intent and that support the federal community.
He highlighted the Corps' role in expanding New York's waterways; construction and infrastructure development for combatant commands; and standardization efforts to improve Defense Department Education Activity schools, and Defense Health Agency and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
"Engineers don't just build with concrete and steel. Engineers have to be one of the guys shaping that vision," he said. "It's all about impact, real-world impact. That's what we got to do. We have got to be something that really is making a difference out there and to be able to make sure that the nation knows it."