When fire ravished the historic towns of Lahaina and Kula, Hawai’i, on the island of Maui in August 2023, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was one of the first agencies on the site to assist the people in recovering from the devastating effects of the deadliest United States wildfire in more than 100 years.
In the aftermath of the fire, FEMA called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support the missions of temporary debris removal, temporary housing, and constructing a temporary school on the island of Maui. As FEMA’s construction agency, USACE formulates a triangular approach to accomplishing the missions, setting up and dispersing its personnel to three offices: a Joint Field Office, a Recovery Field Office, and an Emergency Field Office.
“The roles of the JFO, RFO, and EFO are all very intermingled and connected. All three work together for the success of the mission,” said Col. Jesse Curry, RFO commanding officer for the Hawaii Wildfires Response Mission and the Rock Island District commanding officer. “The work that we’re doing requires us to span from the FEMA headquarters, at the state and county level, all the way down to the quality assurance people working in the recovery area, ensuring the job is done right.”
According to FEMA.com, the JFO is a temporary federal multiagency coordination center established to facilitate incident management activities including response and recovery.
“For this disaster, the Joint Field Office works closely with the state and is typically co-located at the state capital. They also function as support for the RFO and EFO for mission assignments and funding,” said Jonathan Pennington, Emergency Support Function Team Lead for the Hawaii Wildfires Response Mission, in his regular position, he is a program manager with the Mississippi Valley Division. “The JFO is the first office to be establish and determines the missions and assignments of the other two.”
According to Col. Curry, the USACE RFO augments the USACE Honolulu District and the Pacific Ocean Division. He says the Recovery Field Office forms a mini district on the ground to manage the recovery effort.
“Within the RFO are all those similar functions that you would see in a district from Operations, PAO, and a base that works with the project team, debris, temporary housing, and the critical post facilities to enable them to see their projects through,” said Curry.
Curry describes the EFO as another arm of the RFO. He says it is intended to work directly with local stakeholders, perform quality assurance, and ensure the completion of daily work.
Not only does this triangular approach ensure the over 70 employees from multiple divisions and districts throughout USACE accomplish the mission while understanding each office’s role, the triangle or “make ihe” has a spiritual significance in the Hawaiian culture meaning the tip of the spear.
In military culture, the tip of the spear means the forces at the front line or the first line of defense. The specialists on Oahu and Maui are Lahaina and Kula's first step, the front-line team back to normalcy.
"Having the JFO, RFO, and EFO all working on this mission, we can all focus on our parts, task, and mission at the most rudimentary level," said Capt. Chris Price an Alaska District project manager and an Emergency Field Office Battle Captain on Maui. "We have great quality assurance individuals and supervisors working for the Corps. The EFO ensures the outlined tasks for our contractors are getting done to the standards and per the scope of work."
In Lahaina, the fire swept over an estimated 2,170 acres, damaging, or destroying more than 2,200 structures, leaving a path of scarred vehicles, twisted metal, and jumbled buildings, homes, and properties. Approximately 35 miles away in Kula, the scene was much the same. There, the Pacific Disaster Center reported the wildfires exposed at least 544 structures to the fatal flames.
“There are survivors living in hotels, in their cars, tents on the beach. Their kids are going to school in tents, if at all. They lost absolutely everything,” Curry said. “Family history, ancestry, culture – some of it was destroyed. As we continue to work, we must safeguard what remains. It’s so incredibly important.”
He continued by saying a significant part of the goal is to provide a temporary school in a safe environment where kids and teachers do not have to worry about fire, wind, or rain, and they can go back to thinking and learning the same things that elementary kids should, without worry.
The Army Corps of Engineers personnel deployed have adopted the Hawaiian word, Ohana, meaning family. Daily, they pledge to treat the mission and the Maui people with the respect, Ho’ihi, and Akahai, kindness, that they deserve. They also remind each other that for this short time, they are Ohana.
“In my almost 26 years in the Army, the people here have been one of the most special groups of dedicated servants. They work hard to take care of each other, but they also work to do everything they can to make this mission successful,” said Curry.
When new team members join the mission, they are greeted with a saying, “This mission is going to change your life.” Col. Curry agrees.
“This mission will change your life, but it’s because of the mission,” Curry said, “There is a unifying purpose that we have to serve the people of Maui, to help them in a situation where the devastation is so great, and the suffering is so great it has a unifying effect on all of us.”