September is National Preparedness month, which is intended to raise awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies across the country. Although the month of September is dedicated to this important observance, at the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Debris Planning and Response Team stands ready every day in case disaster strikes.
When a disaster occurs, whether natural or manmade, and the state in which it occurred is not equipped to handle the response and cleanup afterwards, the governor may declare a State of Emergency, which is needed prior to a request for federal assistance. The president then may declare a federal disaster, which allows for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to access federal funding for the cleanup. FEMA contracts with USACE Planning and Response Teams to execute the cleanup mission after a disaster.
“The Debris Planning and Response Team is … a district-sourced team of individuals that goes forward when municipalities request assistance with debris removal … during natural disasters,” said Rick Weixelbaum, national emergency preparedness program manager and natural disaster program manager at the Kansas City District. “When a state requests federal assistance, that’s when the President picks up the phone and calls FEMA. USACE is basically FEMA’s contractor.”
Within USACE, there are seven different planning and response team types that are part of FEMA’s federal response plan. These include critical public facilities, debris management, emergency power, infrastructure assessment, safety and occupational health, temporary housing and temporary roofing.
Across the USACE enterprise, there are multiple planning and response teams within each type. Currently, there are seven Debris Planning and Response Teams within USACE dedicated to debris management, the newest of which is located at the Kansas City District.
“In addition to the Kansas City Debris Planning and Response Team, USACE has six additional Debris Planning and Response Teams strategically disbursed throughout the enterprise in Mobile, Alabama, Sacramento, California, Fort Worth, Texas, Louisville, Kentucky, Vicksburg, Mississippi and Baltimore, Maryland,” said Weixelbaum.
Formed in June 2021, the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team can deploy to a disaster area in the continental U.S. within hours, should they be called to do so. On a deployment, the team is responsible for the project management and technical monitoring of debris removal.
“We are 14 [people] deep on the primary team and then I’ve probably got about that many on the alternate team,” said Weixelbaum. “On any given mission, I’ll source from both the primary and the alternate team to have one full team. We are ready, willing and able to deploy wherever we are called at a moment’s notice.”
While no USACE planning and response team is any more important than another, debris removal is perhaps the most visible in the aftermath of a disaster.
“To see what the task looks like when you get there and then when you leave, the before and after is just amazing,” said Weixelbaum. “Just looking at the physical nature of what debris removal does to the landscape … it’s very visible.”
More than just removing debris
For Weixelbaum, disaster and emergency preparedness are part of his everyday duties at USACE. But for the other members of the Kansas City District’s Debris Planning and Response Team, volunteering for the team provides opportunities they might not normally encounter at their day jobs with USACE.
Jim Workman, a section chief in the Kansas City District’s military branch, has been part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team since it was formed in 2021. But Workman has deployed with other USACE planning and response teams to various natural disasters for several years. He has deployed in response to wildfires, floods and hurricanes. His most memorable deployment was as part of a temporary power team, which responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
“One of the most rewarding [deployments] was Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” said Workman. “These people had been without power for months and you turn the power on and crank up the music and … it’s a party. They were really celebrating. So that was a really rewarding deployment.”
Although the atmosphere in Puerto Rico had the feeling of a party after power was restored, Workman emphasized the long days and hard work that are required when deployed as part of a planning and response team. For those who might be interested in volunteering for the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team Workman suggests they give it a shot.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s a great opportunity. Try it, if it’s not for you, that’s fine,” said Workman. “Rick [Weixelbaum] and everyone else involved, we are team people so we will help you along and make sure you are successful.”
According to Workman, there are many benefits of being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team. He enjoys the opportunity to travel to different places across the country, work on projects that are outside of his day-to-day duties and meet people from all over USACE. But his favorite thing about being part of the Debris Planning and Response Team is the satisfaction that comes from helping others in times of need.
“It’s the satisfaction that you get from helping the people that have been devastated,” said Workman. “Just getting the citizens back to their day-to-day life that has been taken away from them, that is a great sense of accomplishment.”
Like Workman, Weixelbaum acknowledges the many benefits and unique opportunities that being part of the district’s Debris Planning and Response Team provides to its members. But like Workman, Weixelbaum’s favorite thing about the team is having the chance to help people during times of disaster and emergency.
“The mission is very rewarding if you have the personality that wants to help others recover to get them back to pre-incident way of life. The Debris Planning and Response Team is out there … with the survivors of these incidents, so there is a lot of return on investment for folks if that’s what they like to do,” said Weixelbaum. “Who doesn’t want to help people?”