“Every time you go out on one of these missions, there are people who’ve just had one of the worst days of their lives, so getting out, being able to do whatever you can to help them put their lives back together and get back on their feet and back to normal is probably the biggest motivation.”
When Eddie LeBlanc, the current team leader for Emergency Support Function 3, Public Works and Engineering responding to the Hawai'i wildfires, reflects on what compels him to serve, he also reflects on a 25-year career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—one that has prepared him to take on the numerous responsibilities of leading an ESF3 mission team.
LeBlanc started out in construction, taking a student co-op role in the USACE New Orleans District’s Lafayette area office. His construction work eventually led him to Emergency Management, where he was introduced to deploying by becoming part of the Debris Planning and Response Team.
“My first deployment was in 2004, during Hurricane Isabel in Virginia,” he said. “From there I continued deploying for many years in various other positions on the PRT and then became a debris subject matter expert.”
All this experience with the debris team culminated in 2013 with LeBlanc becoming the debris program manager for USACE, then a decade later taking a position as a permanent ESF3 cadre member, one of only five such positions in the agency. The overall team leader and assistant team leader cadre has about 80 people.
He noted, “I think a big part [of being on the cadre] is just helping others. You see the fruits of your labor, helping people get back on their feet after they’ve had such a horrible experience. It’s always good to see the communities come back, especially coming from a state that gets a lot of hurricanes and disasters themselves. I know what it means to have others come in and help you and your family.”
LeBlanc arrived Sept. 4 in Hawai'i to lead the ESF3 response. As the second team leader to rotate in, he quickly began linking up with principal contacts at the State of Hawai'i, Maui County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other partners. Because an ESF3 response is funded through a FEMA mission assignment, it’s especially important to build strong relationships with FEMA leaders on the ground.
“They’re the ones who once we have deployment orders let us know who’s who and what’s expected for the disaster [response],” said LeBlanc.
Shortly after arriving, LeBlanc surveyed the damage of the impact areas on Maui in Kula and Lahaina. Though he had seen wildfires before, serving as the debris program manager and lead debris subject matter expert for the 2017 California wildfires—the first wildfire mission USACE had received—the differences in this event are clear.
“It’s some of the worst devastation I’ve seen in my numerous years deploying,” he said. “It’s definitely different than what I have seen in the past, especially knowing the cultural sensitivity on Maui and [logistical] challenges of it being an island and isolated really puts a lot more perspective on how to manage it.”
Recently USACE stood up a Recovery Field Office as a central location on Maui to help manage the recovery effort. The ESF3 team works in tandem with the RFO to ensure mission assignments are written and executed correctly and to coordinate between the RFO and FEMA for mission requirements.
“We’re doing that continued coordination on what the needs are from the RFO to execute the missions, making sure they have the funding and that we meet any other needs,” he said.
Another important aspect of being an ESF3 team leader is working with PRT action officers to ensure mission resourcing and overseeing the allocation of the mission assignment task orders that act as checks to fund various objectives.
“We’re the conduit that goes back and forth between FEMA and the state to those on the PRTs to coordinate timelines and funding to help keep them on track to complete the mission in a timely manner,” said LeBlanc.
This mission is the first where LeBlanc is the sole team leader. In his past recovery missions where he’s responded in this position, there were multiple team leaders, so this has offered a new learning environment and an opportunity to sharpen his skillset.
“You always learn lessons, and every mission you come away with something different, but coordinating at this level for the first time is a big eye opener and will help me further my confidence and expertise in the position going forward,” he said.
Disaster response also brings its own unique stressors and challenges. LeBlanc credits his family for helping him stay mentally fit to lead.
“I know there’s a strong network back home and having support from my wife and kids after doing this for 20-plus years helps me keep focus on the mission and what I’m doing for others,” he said. “The biggest thing I get out of every mission is the satisfaction of helping others in their time of need.”