By John Budnik
USACE-Alaska District Public Affairs
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – Cyclone Sidr struck the southwest coast of Bangladesh in November 2007. The storm caused widespread damage to about half of the country’s 64 districts, resulted in thousands of deaths and left the country with a glaring need to prepare for future natural disasters of historic proportions.
Nine years later, 88 new structures across Bangladesh are providing local school children a place to learn and surrounding communities with a shelter during emergencies. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District’s Asia Office, final construction operations are wrapping up the three-year Multipurpose Cyclone Shelter and School Program with the financial assistance from U.S. Agency for International Development.
“These (projects) are very important for the local communities,” said Mahbub Zaman, senior mission engineer for USAID in Bangladesh. “Currently, they are all being used as schools. Each one has about 200 students and has the capacity to accommodate 1,800 people for shelter during an emergency.”
Since 2009, the Corps has overseen the design and construction of more than 200 critical projects, such as schools and medical clinics, on behalf of the U.S. Pacific Command. According to its website, PACOM is responsible for providing humanitarian assistance to 36 countries across the Asia-Pacific region as part of its mission to enhance stability, promote security cooperation, encourage peaceful development, respond to contingencies, and deter aggression in the area.
Meanwhile, the Corps works around the globe to develop solutions that secures populations, protects infrastructure, strengthens institutions and achieves overall regional stability by enhancing partner nation’s abilities to address resource security and disaster risk management.
In 2011, USAID sought the Alaska District’s expertise to execute its shelter program based off of its experience with PACOM. The program is a prime example of how the Corps helps to build capacity in a developing country.
“The Corps was a natural fit with construction management experience in eight Southeast Asian countries,” said Capt. Wesley Hunnell, project manager in the Asia Office. “We hire multiple local contractors to build these projects and local quality assurance contractors to ensure project standards as well.”
On average, one building can cost $300,000 to $500,000 and includes about four classrooms, male and female restrooms, a nursing mother’s room, and first aid room. Hiring local contractors helps the country economically and builds capacity by enforcing higher construction standards, he said.
The program comes with challenges unique to a developing country like Bangladesh. While the remoteness of the sites creates hurdles for the construction and project management teams to access, the buildings are constructed with very little modern equipment, such as trucks or cranes, Hunnell said.
“The contractor has to move all of the materials to the site,” he said. “They are moving it all by hand and carting the entire building to the location. For many of these projects, there is not a very good road to get there.”
Enforcing quality is a critical component to the success of the program. However, some sites are located in areas with poor cellphone service or limited internet access, if any. Therefore, contractors may be unable to send daily updates and must travel within range to provide weekly status reports. This hurdle can create a lag for any issues that needed to be resolved, Hunnell explained.
Furthermore, a volatile political climate and a shortage of trained laborers has tested the project teams, Zaman said.
“There were a number of challenges for executing this program including site selection, natural calamities, disruption by political activities, interruption by local miscreants and shortage of a skilled workforce to ensure quality,” he said.
Despite the laborious nature of these small projects, the rewards reaped from a finished multipurpose school and shelter far outweigh any obstacle standing in the way of completion. The local populace enhances each building’s value by using the shelter as a community center as well.
“I have seen the shelter’s ground floors being used for sewing fishing nets by fishermen, a training center for local farmers, cleaning agricultural farm produces like rice and wheat, playground for children or just a general recreational place,” Zaman said.
Considered one of USAID’s flagship programs, the direct support to the Bangladesh government for disaster preparedness and improved schools is a significant advancement for those who use the buildings daily.
“We went to one of the sites for a warranty inspection,” Hunnell said. “They have pictures of one of our project managers on the wall during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. It means a lot to them.”