Hurricane Laura was a deadly and damaging Category 4 Atlantic Hurricane that tied with the 1856 Last Island Hurricane as the strongest on record to make Louisiana's landfall, as measured by maximum sustained winds.
The storm caused 29 deaths in the U.S. It also inflicted an estimated $8.7 billion in insured damage on both southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
Responding to disasters is one of several missions the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with. Part of answering this call is through specialized teams that go out and conduct infrastructure assessments in disaster areas.
"On Aug. 29, the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deployed an Infrastructure Assessment Planning and Response Team (PRT) management cell to Louisiana," Infrastructure Assessment Action Officer Doug Weber said.
"When I first started on the Infrastructure Assessment team, I thought it was all about placarding peoples’ homes for safety, " Mission Specialist Adrienne Murphy said. "But in our last two deployments, we’ve been asked to perform inspections of drinking water systems, wastewater systems, and public facilities like hospitals and fire stations."
The primary goal of an Infrastructure Assessment Team is to assist the public in evaluating their facilities after a significant event, whether it be a hurricane, tornado, flooding, or earthquake. Their job is to determine habitability (safe, restricted use, or unsafe) and also to recommend short term repairs to make the building operational, if necessary.
"We also partner with other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, FEMA and other state or local public works organizations when conducting assessments -- so we have a well-rounded team with all the right knowledge," Murphy added. "These diverse teams want to help get public infrastructure back up and running so people can start rebuilding their lives after an event."
Weber said their assessments also provide FEMA with situational awareness of the scope of damages. Typically, to get a facility inspected, the local parish or county initiates the process.
"The state and FEMA need to concur and task us before the team performs an assessment," Weber said. "The IA PRTs are set up as a management cell. We are all cross-trained and can manage the mission or conduct assessments, but the teams normally consist of an action officer, mission manager, mission specialist, database manager, supervisory inspection team lead, and training officer."
Weber said the Corps IA team supplements state and local efforts. If the state has the capability, then USACE mission teams are probably not needed.
Typical damages seen in Louisiana were to water distribution systems from trees uprooting lines and sewer lines damaged by debris.
"Fire stations had roof and wall damage, and many of the large roll up doors were completely destroyed," Weber said. "Many of the firemen were in the fire stations during the storm and had interesting stories. It must have been really scary to be hunkered down in the dark as the building's roof and doors were being blown off."
Thus far, feedback received has been very positive from facility operators, state representatives, and FEMA.
"For example, firemen knew that their facilities were damaged but didn't know if they should be occupying or not," Weber said. "They were relieved to have us evaluate and determine if the buildings were safe to occupy."
There are additional benefits to having USACE assessments teams in the disaster area, especially since some people unfortunately try to take advantage of survivors during times of stress and uncertainty.
"When we were performing assessments, we ran into private organizations coming into communities and pressuring them (survivors) to use their services, promising them they would fill out paperwork to get them FEMA money and 'keep them out of jail'," Murphy said. "These communities are going through stressful times and need to get back on their feet."
She said that many times, communities already have the expertise they need to work on existing problems and only need the Corps' reassurance that a facility is safe to access.
"Not being pressured to make a deal goes a long way in a time of need," Murphy added.
Once structure evaluations are complete, they go directly to FEMA.
"Most times, even before we are done writing the reports, we hear that communities are getting the additional resources and help they need," she added.
The Corps assessed a total of 52 fire stations, 53 water and wastewater facilities, and one hospital while deployed to Louisiana.
"Evaluating facilities, identifying hazards, and making repair recommendations is very rewarding," Weber added. "It can be hard work, but it is very satisfying to help communities recover from disasters."
"I remember watching first responders on the news during 9/11," Murphy said. "I worked with people who deployed to support Louisiana after Katrina and other serious events while I have worked for the Government. I feel like when we are isolated, and away from what is happening, we can't fully comprehend what these communities are going through without having boots on the ground," she said.
Murphy continued to say she knows of several others who feel the same way she does.
"Being a responder connects us to other people in need, and we all want to help in any way we can," she added. "One day, Seattle, where I’m from, could experience a significant event like a major earthquake that could impact infrastructure and homes. I would want to know that IA teams from other parts of the country are coming to help my community if I can't while I take care of my own family."
And that's what the Corps of Engineers does. They take care of people. They help the people of the United States recover from disasters. Anytime the American people need the Corps, American people respond, with the Corps.