By Capt. Jay Carmody, LEED GA, M.SAME, USA
On Nov. 3, 2020, Hurricane Eta made landfall in Central America. This Category 4 storm caused more than 200 fatalities and resulted in approximately $8 billion in damage across the region. Within 13 days, Hurricane Iota, a Category 5, made landfall along a similar path, causing an additional 61 fatalities and $1.5 billion in damages. The succession of extreme weather undermined much of the recovery efforts and severely tested the response capabilities of several Central American countries.
Joint Task Force – Bravo (JTF-B), located at Soto Cano AB, Honduras, was the first U.S. entity to respond and, under the supervision of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), executed 278 missions over a roughly three-week time span. In total, JTF-B was directly responsible for the rescue of 810 individuals and the transportation of 349,500-lb of food and supplies to communities.
The bulk of the effort during these missions came by rotary wing support from the 1-228 Aviation Regiment “Winged Warriors.” The United Kingdom, France, Colombia, Taiwan, Spain, and Japan provided transportation, food, and supplies. In the milieu of organizations and entities responding to these disasters, the engineers of JTF-B were called to go beyond.
During the response effort, the engineer section handled everything from pathfinder operations to load planning, but the most important work came in a few areas. First, they were responsible for completing site assessments of infrastructure both for U.S. operations and the host nation’s response. Second, they built a common operating picture (COP) that encapsulated, vetted, and consolidated every source of infrastructure information available. Finally, they utilized assets from across the force to gather and analyze information driving disaster response efforts.
The first engineer task was to conduct on-ground analysis of critical infrastructure. This served the twofold purpose of identifying damaged ground lines of communication while also indicating what communities were isolated. To overcome the shortfall of available engineers, JTF-B’s Civil Affairs Company conducted route reconnaissance and infrastructure surveys while the engineers analyzed and aggregated the data. Additionally, rotary wing assets conducted infrastructure flyovers in conjunction with rescue missions and the delivery of life-saving aid to isolated communities.
An example of this collaboration came after Hurricane Iota. A 13-truck convoy required to establish an air refueling point needed to pass through a dangerous stretch of RN-15 leading to a helicopter landing zone in the remote Olancho Province of Honduras.
However, the soil under the road had eroded significantly. It was up to the engineers to see if this road could support the vehicles required to conduct refueling operations. A route analysis up to the damaged section was conducted, and its findings were provided to the JTF-B commander. This information, coupled with a civil affairs reconnaissance of a bypass, enabled mission success in an austere environment.
Among the most challenging portions of any mission is the consolidation and prioritization of information. Infrastructure intelligence in the aftermath of the storms came from open-source platforms, as well as host nation government sources, aerial and on-ground reconnaissance, and U.S. government resources. Creating an engineer COP that was accessible and usable across the force, while shareable with the host nation, proved a challenge—but nothing that the engineers could not handle.
In Guatemala, a comprehensive infrastructure picture was assembled from reports from the Guatemalan Military Engineers, the Ministry of Roads and Bridges, and the National Coordination for Disaster Reduction of Guatemala. Key pieces of information were selected and prioritized, which informed a daily meeting that de-conflicted infrastructure reports and identified reconnaissance priorities.
From these meetings, a report was uploaded into a universally shareable COP of the infrastructure situation in each of the countries severely affected by the storm. The canalization of information at the country level, combined with the coordination efforts of the engineer staff, provided the JTF-B and U.S. Southern Command leadership with daily infrastructure updates to assist decision-making.
Host nation reports also were consolidated by the engineers to provide recommendations for the use of reconnaissance assets along the northern coast of Honduras. By accurately identifying critical lines of communications and ports, JTF-B logisticians could coordinate the delivery of fuel and supplies and receive aid shipments from around the world.
Another way that the joint force was able to collect information during response efforts was by relying on the Army’s Engineer Reachback Operations Center, located in Vicksburg, Miss. Subject matter experts answered questions about dam capabilities, built flood projections, and accessed archived data for the countries of Central America, allowing the JTF-B engineers to advise the commander and partner nation on potentially affected areas.
The information provided by the Engineer Reachback Operations Center assisted on the ground in determining major deliveries of food and supplies of all sizes—from assets as small as a sedan to as large as a French naval vessel.
CONTINUING THE ENGAGEMENT
It will take the region years to recover from the damage caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, but the engineers of JTF-B will be there to assist each step of the way. In the months after the storm, they have collaborated with civil affairs teams to provide Humanitarian Assistance Program donations of construction supplies to hard-hit communities while additionally identifying larger projects that contractors can complete. Working with the Security Forces Assistance Brigade and future exercise planners also has allowed JTF-B to prioritize projects in remote regions. Finally, coordinating for subject matter exchanges will better prepare the countries of the region to respond to future storms while building inter-American partnerships.
Working with civil affairs elements embedded in the community has enabled the engineers to identify structures that require only a moderate donation of building material to return them to their pre-hurricane capacity. An example of this partnership at work came during a site visit to San Pedro Sula in Honduras, three weeks after the disaster response had officially ended. As part of this visit, a school was identified as being in dire need of construction material to repair damage caused by the storms. By coordinating with the civil affairs team, JTF-B was able to conduct an engagement with the school’s headmaster and consolidate a list of materials required to repair the roof. Funding of this project by the U.S. Embassy in Honduras and approval by USAID allowed the civil affairs team to purchase the materials and donate them to the school. By returning to the area assisted during the immediate response phase with the same engineer, relationships and confidence in the reliability of the United States as a stable partner was built.
Exercising Partnerships. Several major exercises occur in Central America every year, and as the only permanently stationed unit in Central America, the JTF-B engineers have a role to play in orchestrating these events and ensuring they meet the needs of the communities they assist. During a site survey to Guatemala to support upcoming exercises, Guatemalan engineers and disaster response agencies provided priority sites in conjunction with the local USAID representative for the engineer teams to visit.
The engineer team was able to determine if the site qualified for a low-cost Humanitarian Assistance Program project, USAID funding, or would be best suited for troop labor during exercises in the following fiscal year. By coordinating with U.S. Army South, the engineers were able to build requirements that would fit into FY2022 exercises in Guatemala—ensuring that quality training for soldiers would result in the maximum benefit for the partner nation.
Exchanging Expertise. JTF-B has remained engaged during the aftermath of the storm by coordinating subject matter exchanges. Enabling the host nation to utilize its own assets to maximum effect during future incidents is key to a successful disaster response. Exchanges from the United States are the key to making that happen. As a joint force, the JTF-B engineers have mobilized to provide these types of exchanges. Examples include a push by the 1st Security Forces Assistance Brigade to integrate with Honduran engineers in the months following Hurricanes Eta and Iota; the work of the Arkansas National Guard to forecast an engineer exchange with Guatemala; and efforts by the Puerto Rican National Guard engineers to tailor their deployment to Honduras to coincide with disaster response priorities.
Although many of these deployments and subject matter exchanges were previously forecasted, JTF-B has integrated their long-term planning with the reality on the ground, acting as a force multiplier by providing capabilities that the partner nation wants and needs.
THE PARTNER OF CHOICE
Supporting our allies in Central America helped the JTF-B team learn creative solutions to problem sets not often encountered in the United States while also cementing our role as the trusted “partner of choice” in the region.
Building strong partnerships is fraught with historical difficulties and challenges, but as engineers, we are proud to help those in need as best we can and live up to our motto: Essayons!
Capt. Jay Carmody, LEED GA, M.SAME, USA, is Project Officer, Joint Task Force – Bravo, Soto Cano AB, Honduras; firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the November-December 2021 issue of The Military Engineer.]