Disasters like the Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui have the power to decimate communities, necessitating immediate response and recovery efforts for the people whose lives have been upended. As initial needs such as access to food and temporary shelter are met, all levels of government must begin examining and planning for long-term recovery.
After Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other partners realized there was a need for more cross-collaboration between levels of government to ensure recovery efforts make use of all available resources. Working together, they developed six Recovery Support Functions, each led by a specific agency. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leads the Infrastructure Systems RSF, which is activated by FEMA as needed after a disaster.
“In the short term, you’re looking at, for instance, getting the power on and water running, but the recovery mission is different,” said David Apple, national coordinator of the Infrastructure Systems Recovery Support Function. “It’s helping communities once they’ve got themselves back to some semblance of order to start looking at their infrastructure in terms of not just rebuilding back what was there but rebuilding something that’s much better with more resiliency.”
While USACE is the lead agency, many partners contribute to the IS-RSF mission including the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of Agriculture and others.
“We are part of the Interagency Recovery Group, which is coordinated by FEMA and brings all of these federal agencies under the RSF flag,” said Apple.
USACE’s IS-RSF team is made up of about 40 field coordinators who come from a variety of professional backgrounds like planning, engineering and administration.
“One of the things our folks must have a working knowledge of is the civil works process and some of the authorities and policies pertaining to them, because most of the damage we are dealing with happens to civil works projects,” said Apple.
For the Hawai'i wildfires mission, Apple is the second IS-RSF team member to rotate in, arriving late-September, and he was soon joined by fellow IS-RSF member Tony Krause from the USACE Omaha District.
“I come from a hydraulics and hydrology engineering background and have coordinated and worked with the Silver Jackets program in floodplain management out of the Omaha District,” said Krause. “That kind of interagency coordination has led to a lot of connections with FEMA Region 8, which has RSF task force meetings monthly, not just during disasters.”
Apple added, “When Hurricane Irma showed up, I was asked to be an infrastructure field coordinator. I had never done it before, so I worked that mission and got to know a lot of the FEMA folks that we worked with, and I had the opportunity to work with them again in 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit. In 2022, when hurricanes Ian and Nicole hit Florida, I was requested to work that mission and that opened the door to become the IS-RSF liaison to FEMA for the Corps.”
The two are now putting their experience to use to help Maui County and the State of Hawai'i evaluate their infrastructure in the wake of wildfires and to plan for the future, after FEMA requested IS-RSF assistance Aug. 20. Though Apple and Krause are on 30-day deployments, IS-RSF team members often deploy up to 90 days because of the long-term nature of their consultations.
“The first thing we do is really get to know the community and the local government representatives by talking to them and finding out what their needs are,” said Apple. “During a recent meeting we had the opportunity to hear from Maui County; one of the things we learned was that they needed help with making use of GIS [Geographic Information System] data.”
After discovering this, the IS-RSF team met Oct. 4 with the Maui County Highways Division, the county Department of Transportation, FEMA and other partners to discuss the County’s existing GIS capabilities and how to leverage data across agencies to further develop their planning products.
“Through that meeting, we discussed how we might be able to work with our partners to analyze data from existing and forecasted projects, such as public works and urban planning, to overlay on their existing GIS mapping products,” said Krause. “We determined there were a couple projects that would be a good fit to start test piloting. The hope is that these two projects will serve as the basis for new and added capabilities going forward.”
In general, the critical factor for IS-RSF success is building relationships and actively working to identify the needs a community must prioritize.
“I call them kitchen table talks, where we just sit down across the table and say, ‘okay, we know you’ve been through a lot and we know you’re struggling,’” said Apple. “Then we ask some questions to kind of pull some threads and a lot of times we find the communities aren’t sure, so we start talking with them about what can be done in certain areas, and we follow the threads to put together some ideas to assist them.”
IS-RSF also works with USACE’s Infrastructure Assessment teams that are part of Emergency Support Function 3, Public Works and Engineering.
“They’re looking at the capabilities of whether those buildings such as police and fire stations, schools and hospitals can be used, and their efforts help inform our work because they give us an idea of the damage levels,” said Apple.
The IS-RSF team is currently recruiting fellow USACE personnel, and Apple offered insight for those interested.
“I would say this is a very worthwhile mission and you’re going to learn a lot,” he said. “Not only will it improve your communication and coordination skills, but more importantly, you’re making a difference in somebody’s life. I would encourage anyone who is interested to do it because the experience and the friendships you make from it are impactful as well.”
Krause reflected on the IS-RSF’s mission overall and its role in the wildfires’ response.
He noted, “Two fire responses I have worked previously are Yellowstone National Park and the area just downstream of it, and like here in Hawai'i, these places that are impacted by disasters are truly unique gems of America, and you get the opportunity to help bring them back. It’s a great thing, and it’s rewarding.”