LAHAINA, Hawaii — More than 150 days after devastating fires rampaged through the towns of Lahaina and Kula on the island of Maui, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues its Federal Emergency Management Agency-assigned mission.
“The Corps of Engineers has three mission assignments,” said Col. Jess Curry, Recovery Field Office commander and USACE Rock Island District commander. “The first is debris removal. The fire destroyed houses, commercial and public structures. We’re working through removing that debris and returning those properties to the homeowners, clear and safe, so they can start to rebuild.”
Wildfire debris usually consists of burnt structures, cars and other metal objects, ash, charred wood waste, nonviable trees, and concrete foundations.
"The debris the Corps has to remove under this event that represents a threat to human health, or the environment is the structural ash footprint of a dwelling," said Cory Koger, a debris subject matter expert for the recovery mission from USACE Sacramento District. "We are doing commercial, public, and residential structures in the mission. When something burns, you have an ash halo. Everything inside that halo is the eligible debris under this event, which is the hazard that needs to be removed."
He continued by saying that because FEMA also wanted to provide economic recovery, they have also authorized the removal of slab foundations, vehicles, hazardous trees and soil. Koger said we would sample any impacted soil and then excavate it. He said that was an economic recovery benefit because it is not an eliminated environmental or human health threat.
USACE conducted debris removal in two phases. Phase 1 includes site assessments, hazardous household material removal and bulk asbestos removal. Phase 2 removes other fire-related debris, such as ash, unsafe trees and concrete foundations.
The Corps of Engineers conducts soil testing on each parcel after clearing to ensure residents' properties are safe.
"The Corps uses a sampling and analysis plan approved by the Hawaii Department of Health that established the cleanup goals so residents can get a permit to rebuild on their property," said Koger. "For each area that we are going to dig or not, we have to have a 75-point composite sample."
The next assignment is critical public facilities, which he says entails building a temporary school for the children of Lahaina who lost their school, King Kamehameha III Elementary, in the wildfire. The fire displaced more than 600 children.
"We are tasked with building a temporary school to serve as a place where those students can go to class and learn while the Department of Education continues its plans to build a permanent school," said Curry.
USACE awarded the contract for the temporary school Nov. 3, 2023, with the Notice to Process issued Nov. 20, 2023. Funding includes the site's design, construction, grading, utility installation, and electrical. The initial lease for the land and the modular units is six months, with options to extend up to five years at an additional cost.
"This is a fast-moving project, and we have the exact right people on this team," said Larry Ramos, quality assurance for the project and at USACE Galveston District, Corpus Christi Area Office. "Between us, we have more than 130 years of construction experience. We have created a team that can rely on each other, so we know what we have to do to do the best for the project and this community."
Contractors will place 337 modular units to form ten large and 20 small classrooms. Besides the classrooms, the campus will include three restrooms, one administration building, one learning center, and one combination dining and food service center. As of Jan. 8, 2024, 300 units are on site and ready for placement.
The modular school is a temporary replacement for the King Kamehameha III Elementary School, which served the students of Lahaina since 1913.
"Working with the contractors every day, we have formed a unity between them and us," said Ramos. "I've found out talking to them [contractors] that many of them have skin in the game. They have kids that went to Kamehameha, or they went there, or they know someone whose kids went there, so they are vested in this project. Like us, they are on a mission to finish this school for the kids."
Ramos said there are usually 50 to 60 people on site daily with various trades. He said each person brings their experience, commitment, and passion, all with a common goal — to give the "keiki," the Hawaiian word for children — a temporary school, a safe place to learn.
"I've been on multiple mega-projects, including working on the first generation of the border wall under President Bush, but every day at the end of the day, when I walk the site, I can see what we've accomplished," said Ramos. "When this job is finished, I know I will have left a little piece of me in Lahaina, and I will take a little piece of Lahaina with me. I am honored to serve on this mission. I will tell my kids and grandkids about it."
The third mission is temporary housing.
FEMA assigned USACE the temporary housing mission, Oct. 28, 2023. This mission involved conceptual design, site preparation, and construction of 400 to 600 temporary housing “pads.”
These pads will provide a place for FEMA to place the temporary housing structures. FEMA retained responsibility for the procurement and installation of temporary housing units.
“The pads would include all the roads and infrastructure, and everything associated with a residential development, including mail service,” said Jeff McCullick, mission manager for temporary housing from USACE St. Paul District.
FEMA selected three sites for the Corps of Engineers design and review teams to assess, with two sites receiving authorization from FEMA on Dec. 21, 2023, to proceed with 100 percent design.
“We’re working on design right now on all three,” said McCullick. “One of them is close to having a complete design and it will probably be finished around the end of January. Then we are looking at possibly awarding a contract in February and then about 120 days for construction.”
McCullick said the other two sites would be about two to four weeks behind as the designs are complete.
McCullick has been a part of the recovery mission since November, and for him, like so many others, it’s personal.
“I don’t think anything can prepare you for seeing the aftermath. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some stuff,” he said. “It really tugs at your heart. It makes you drive that much harder and push towards the end goal — heads in beds, getting people in homes.”