By Thomas BlackAugust 4, 2011
JOPLIN, Mo. " Like many U. S. Army Corps of Engineers employees, Stephen Harris finds it fulfilling to help people who've been affected by natural disasters.
A native of Logansport, Ind., he deployed July 7 from the Corps' Huntington District in West Virginia to Joplin, Mo., to help out with tornado recovery efforts.
In the aftermath of an EF-5 tornado that slammed Joplin May 22, FEMA tasked the Corps with three primary missions: removing debris, setting up temporary housing, and replacing critical infrastructure including fire stations and schools.
At the Joplin Recovery Field Office, Harris serves as a quality assurance inspector for the housing mission. In conjunction with FEMA, the Corps is providing 346 temporary housing units for displaced tornado victims on the north edge of the city.
For weeks, crews have worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to get the homes ready. For several weeks, Harris worked the night shift, 6 p.m. until 6:30 a.m., which he preferred because it kept him out of the worst of the intense heat that has settled in for long stretches this summer.
In his regular position in Huntington, W.V., the 19-year Corps veteran is a community planner/flood proofing coordinator. "Flood-proofing" involves raising residential homes and providing new foundations above the floodplain in flood-prone areas of West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. He estimates he's done a few hundred such homes.
"We have a very serious flooding problem in our part of the country and I enjoy working with the people and getting them out of harm's way. I'm fortunate enough to oversee one of the few programs the federal government has that helps the people who really need it," Harris said.
But one of the challenges, he noted, is "dealing with people and letting them know the limitations," since unrealistic expectations are not uncommon. "Generally speaking, people are very glad that you're there, and they don't try to take advantage of the situation."
Harris deployed to Louisiana for three months in the fall of the 2005 after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast, but is enjoying the Joplin deployment much more.
"The difference between Katrina and Joplin is the people. The people here are so grateful," he said, adding strangers have approached him when they see his Corps attire and thanked him repeatedly for being here.
Harris, whose deployment ends Aug. 12th, resides in Chesapeake, Ohio, across the Ohio River from Huntington. He likes to spend all of his free time with his wife and family out by the pool. They have horses and, when he can, he enjoys helping his father-in-law take care of his large farm.