By Donald Maconi, P.E., M.SAME
The Department of Defense Humanitarian Assistance Program aids in shaping the military operational environment while providing relief to populations in need. The program also enables countries to prepare for crises by providing disaster preparedness assistance in communities that do not have the capabilities, technology, or other resources to do so themselves. These efforts reduce the potential escalation of a crisis during or after a natural disaster, enabling greater regional stability.
As extreme weather events and natural disasters continue to increase in frequency, bolstering the resiliency of communities through disaster preparedness and emergency relief infrastructure is a critical need. Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command (NAVFAC) Southeast, having faced many hurricanes across its geographic footprint, has mastered many disaster preparedness and resilience responsibilities. And the agency has extended its expertise to support humanitarian efforts across the Caribbean basin. Since 2008, NAVFAC Southeast has completed the construction of more than 85 humanitarian assistance projects, totaling over $66 million and spanning 11 Caribbean nations.
Globally, the Humanitarian Assistance Program is led by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. At the regional level, the program is managed by the responsible geographic combatant commands. The Caribbean falls within the area of responsibility of two different commands: U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command.
Humanitarian assistance and infrastructure resiliency is especially important to the Caribbean since the region is particularly prone to numerous natural disasters such as hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes, and flooding. The partnerships between NAVFAC Southeast, local governments, and the combatant commands provide essential humanitarian aid on the ground, allowing the region to recover quickly following a natural disaster. NAVFAC Southeast supports humanitarian assistance efforts by planning, designing, constructing, and renovating facilities, allowing the Caribbean to be more resilient to natural disasters.
Additionally, NAVFAC’s Expeditionary Business Line specializes in disaster preparedness and disaster response, providing reach-back support within the southeastern region of the United States and abroad. The Expeditionary Business Line leads contingency-related construction services and global contracting for military operations, emergency management programs at naval installations, Defense Support of Civil Authorities, and foreign humanitarian operations.
Independent from the Humanitarian Assistance Program, NAVFAC Southeast additionally has a Contingency Engineering Response Team that deploys to areas affected by natural disasters. The unit is broken down into smaller Damage Assessment Teams that are able to quickly assess the damage after a storm. The immediate effort of the team is to determine the safety of facilities and re-establish utility functions such as power and water as soon as possible. These assessments also allow cost estimates to be generated and provide an opportunity for NAVFAC Southeast to learn from any structural pitfalls that can be improved upon in future construction projects.
To help effectively get communities back on their feet as fast as possible and provide multidisciplined expertise, these specialized assessment teams consist of structural, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineers; architects and construction contract specialists; managers; and technicians. The Contingency Engineering Response Team most often responds to damage left behind by hurricanes and tornadoes on U.S. military installations, but has also responded to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Matthew in the Bahamas in 2016.
GETTING THE SUPPORT
The Greater Antilles, which includes the nations of Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, is at high risk for natural disasters. The region is not only located in the Caribbean’s “Hurricane Alley,” but it also nests between two fault lines: the Septentrional-Oriente in the north and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden in the south. The northern fault lines of the Caribbean tectonic plate also rubs against the North American tectonic plate each year.
The Humanitarian Assistance Program faced a demanding workload after the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Following the earthquake, NAVFAC Southeast awarded 60 humanitarian projects bundled into 20 design-build contracts over the next three years, with a cumulative value of $35 million. The projects included emergency operations centers, disaster relief warehouses, fire stations, emergency medical service facilities, and “community clusters” consisting of schools, medical clinics, community centers, latrines, and water wells. These new facilities were located at 23 different sites throughout all 10 provinces in Haiti, and provided direct support capabilities to each provincial emergency manager to more quickly support their local community.
In 2019, the program’s efforts were again put to the test when the disaster relief warehouse located in Freeport, Grand Bahama, faced 38 hours of continuous Category Five hurricane-force winds caused by Hurricane Dorian. Despite these conditions, the facility stood strong and was able to provide lifesaving supplies to local inhabitants after the storm passed. The warehouse had been completed in 2014, so it was already in place and could be immediately utilized when needed. This further proves the importance of building a strong infrastructure sooner than later—one never knows when or where a disaster will strike.
Though extremely rewarding, contracting in environments outside of the United States can be uniquely challenging. Each project faces different challenges based on local laws and regulations. To prevent violations, NAVFAC Southeast asks its general contractors to become familiar with what can impact their project—including obtaining the required permits and understanding taxes and business laws; and adhering to NAVFAC, Unified Facilities Criteria, and local and international building codes. Additionally, it is essential that contractors utilize local laborers and local materials when available. This helps to stimulate local economies, further contributing to maintaining regional stability.
In an effort to provide quality assurance and exceptional customer service, frequent coordination is established between NAVFAC Southeast, contractor partners, local leaders, and the combatant command in charge. While there is always a project partner onsite, the use of modern communication technologies ensure that all parties are included every step of the way.
NAVFAC Southeast continues to dedicate services to the Caribbean. In 2021, a total of seven more humanitarian projects under the agency’s design-build contracts are under construction across the region. Of this work, five projects will support Grenada and the Commonwealth of Dominica.
There are two more projects under planning and design for construction contract award: one that will support St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the other supporting Jamaica. These countries are particularly susceptible to both tropical cyclones from the Atlantic Ocean and earthquakes.
After a project within the Humanitarian Assistance Program is completed, the facilities are turned over to the local government, without a standing U.S. presence. The local governments are able to use these facilities to benefit their citizens. However, the communities do also then become responsible for establishing and managing operations and facility maintenance. To ensure the quality of the facilities after they are built, NAVFAC Southeast offers a standard one-year warranty on completed contracts for any adjustments or repairs as needed. In the event of damage after a storm, the local government is still accountable for the facility, but NAVFAC Southeast remains dedicated to support any way it can under a new contract.
The devastation caused by an earthquake or other natural disaster is sudden and often unpredictable. The infrastructure that supports emergency response must meet stringent design and construction criteria. NAVFAC Southeast will continue to be a dedicated partner supporting the Humanitarian Assistance Program and working to strengthen the resilience of the Caribbean for years to come.
Donald Maconi, P.E., M.SAME, is Contingency Engineer, NAVFAC Southeast; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the September-October 2021 issue of The Military Engineer.]