By Dino W. Buchanan
USACE - Honolulu District Public Affairs
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii - Delta Company of the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) deployed to Saipan in August and provided much-needed power line restoration support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) authority missions in response to Typhoon Soudelor. Typhoon Soudelor struck Saipan Aug. 2-3 with estimated 120-mph gusts, heavy rains, and lightning, leaving the island's 50,000 residents and tourists without water or power.
USACE support of FEMA included deployment of a Power Planning and Response Team (PRT) from the Honolulu District, Advanced Contracting Initiative (ACI) assets, resources from 249th Prime Power’s Alpha and Delta Companies, and debris subject matter experts (SMEs) in order to conduct rapid assessments of critical infrastructure.
Delta Company, as a part of USACE, operates under the National Response Framework in support of FEMA and was part of the total federal response to this natural disaster. USACE is the agency responsible for Emergency Support Function Three, Public Works and Engineering.
The nine-man group of Delta Company Soldiers deployed from Rhode Island initially to assist with the repair of the Saipan port lighting system. FEMA also mission assigned the team to assist CNMI in installing the hardwire and electrical wiring on utility poles and assisting with bringing up the island’s electrical distribution system.
The Commonwealth Utilities Corporation (CUC) continues to work on restoring Saipan’s power and water systems with the assistance of local, regional, and federal partners. The CUC Power Division, with the assistance of the 249th’s Delta Company, is working concurrently to restore transmission and distribution systems throughout the island by slowly energizing areas after careful inspections while power plant crews address generation capabilities. After the storm the CUC said all 14,622 electric customers on Saipan were without grid power and later visual inspections confirmed nearly 800 power poles and 600 transformers were damaged.
According to Delta Company’s Non-Commissioned Officer-in-Charge Sgt.1st Class Jitu Whitehead, the group’s certification as journeymen lineman – basically exterior electricians - was “a perfect fit” after the storm since the local utility company had limited manpower.
“After our initial mission of getting the port lights on line was complete, we offered our services as linemen and began assisting in getting power lines re-energized and de-energizing the more than 90 FEMA generators providing emergency power,” Whitehead said. “In addition to reconnecting lines atop power poles, we worked to troubleshoot issues in the power substations as well as disconnecting the FEMA generators once the main feeder lines were back to 100% capability.”
Whitehead characterized the missions on Saipan as “perfect training for Delta Company.”
“We’ve been trying to link up with FEMA and for them to utilize our critical skills for some time, especially in these types of storm scenarios,” Whitehead said. “This lineman mission directly links to what we do in our civilian jobs and what we do in the Army Reserve. It’s definitely a positive learning experience for us to collectively work on Saipan’s electrical distribution system, understand how it works while also being able to exchange ideas with the local company utility workers on processes that work for them and as us well. We can take back home some of those ideas back to our civilian jobs or to the Army and use those ideas to help us work more effectively and safely.”
FEMA’s federal coordinating officer on Saipan Stephen DeBlasio, said recently during a Saipan government recovery coordination meeting that Typhoon Soudelor rivaled major catastrophic events in the U.S. mainland and thanked the Corps of Engineers – in particular Delta Company - for their help. DeBlasio said this was the first time he has seen FEMA utilize the 249th Engineer Battalion.
“These are guys and gals climbing the poles and following behind CUC crews and making the connections, installing some of the hardware,” he said, describing them as “heroes.”
DeBlasio said the 249th team will be on island for a minimum 30 days, but he will press to keep them on board as long as the CUC needs them.
“I’ve been involved in Katrina, I’ve been involved in 9/11, I’ve been involved in the hurricane season in 2004, and Irene in the northeast and I can tell you the devastation here on this small island rivals anyone of those events. This is a heavy lift.”
FEMA said as of Aug. 27 that almost 90 of 200 new concrete utility poles have been installed and 58 of the 145 water wells of the Saipan are operable. The international airport and port have both resumed 24/7 operations.
The 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) is a versatile power generation battalion assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that provides commercial-level power to military units and federal relief organizations during full-spectrum operations. The battalion consists of a headquarters and headquarters company, four Prime Power line companies (A, B, C & D), and the Prime Power School. The 249th offers a variety of services including: electrical power requirement assessment, power production; transformer inspection and test analysis; maintenance and repair of power plants, substations, and government owned or managed transmission and distribution systems, circuit breaker and relay maintenance; infrared surveys, medium-voltage electrical contractor oversight, and training for personnel to operate and maintain prime power distribution and generation equipment.
Alpha Company, 249th Engineer Battalion, consisting of a company headquarters and four prime power platoons, is located at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Delta Company, comprised of all Reserve Soldiers – including the nine currently deployed to Saipan - has its headquarters and three platoons at Cranston, Rhode Island, and one platoon at Fort Belvoir, Va. Each line company and its four to six platoons are capable of setting up, operating, and repairing complete medium voltage power generation and distribution systems worldwide.
The 9th Mission Support Command’s Tanapag U.S. Army Reserve Center on Saipan is being used by FEMA as an operations center and staging area for generators, communications systems, food and water. The Army Corps of Engineers Power Planning and Response Team along with the Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion has assessed, installed and maintained emergency generators at water wells and other critical facilities.
Emergency response personnel and technical subject matter experts for temporary power and debris management, contracting, logistics, and communication functions from Headquarters USACE; Great Lakes and Ohio River; Mississippi Valley; North Atlantic; Northwestern; South Atlantic; South Pacific; Southwestern; and Pacific Ocean divisions all came together to ensure the needs in Saipan were met.