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Posted 5/7/2015

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By Megan Holland, ERDC Public Affairs

Nearly 27,000 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of the Ebola Virus have been documented since the beginning of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa, according to the Center for Disease Control, with more than 11,000 of those cases tragically resulting in death. Dealing with a crisis of unprecedented proportions and limited resources, the countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are heavily relying on outside sources and aid as they attempt to reign in this seemingly unstoppable disease – and now that influx of visitors and imports has caused issues of its own.  

In September, researchers in the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory (GSL) Airfields and Pavements Branch received a request to support the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the assessment of airfield pavements at Roberts International Airport, Monrovia, Liberia. AFRICOM needed to know if the airport had the continued ability to handle humanitarian airlift operations and also needed recommendations on airfield pavement maintenance and repair requirements to sustain the operations. 

“The request for assistance came from Headquarters, Department of the Army to the ERDC Commander and support was coordinated through ERDC’s U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Reachback Operations Center,” said Dr. Gary Anderton, research civil engineer and chief of the Airfields and Pavements Branch. “We are the Tri-Service leader in airfields and pavements technology so when this problem arose, they looked to us to provide solutions.”

ERDC’s first step was to contact the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) and the USACE Transportation Systems Center (TSC) to request help collecting and analyzing the data needed to support the assessment. AFCEC had direct communications with the team conducting the preliminary analysis on the ground in Monrovia and TSC has expertise in airfield pavement geometric requirements, for example the minimum size of a runway required for a specific aircraft, as well as contingency lighting, marking and navigations systems.

AFCEC was able to provide reports and other data from the U.S. Air Forces Europe Contingency Response Group and the Air Mobility Command Joint Assessment Team; both organizations had recently conducted field tests at Roberts International Airport. A report on surface and subsurface conditions commissioned by the Liberia Civil Aviation Authority and prepared by Netherlands Airport Consultants B.V. was also provided. Anderton, along with Research Civil Engineer Andrew Harrison, served as technical leads for the assessment and the pair worked closely with the TSC to analyze all available information. 

With pavement that is 40 years old, the surface condition of much of the airfield was classified as fair to poor and past repairs following war-related damage were not constructed well. Additional problems included drainage issues and water infiltration, along with the likelihood that deterioration would require more than localized repairs due to the age of the pavement.  Final recommendations were delivered only one week after the request was received and multiple courses of action were offered including placing a maintenance and repair team onsite to identify and repair the weakest patches;  maintaining operability with continuous repair work while milling and replacing portions of the pavement; and rehabilitating the worst areas with full depth repairs.

“Our assessment supported the recent U.S. Air Force quick analysis in that there were a number of critical issues with the pavements that had to be resolved before the humanitarian airlift operations intensified,” said Anderton. “We provided three potential courses of action, with each one depending upon the projected mission timetable – short-term or three to five months; mid-term or six to 12 months; and long-term or years of service. Our short-term recommendations have already been implemented.”

Roberts International Airport remained in use throughout the evaluation, and the emergency repairs were made during and immediately after the final assessment. Humanitarian aid flows heavily through the area in the form of doctors, medicine and supplies and clinics have been built near the airport site for easy access. Continued operations are vital to the people of Liberia - of those nearly 27,000 cases, almost 11,000 have occurred in Liberia. Though the country doesn’t hold the highest infection rate, it does hold the highest death rate. Almost 5,000 people have died there, giving the country a current survival rate of only 55% for those who contract the disease.  For the people of West Africa, assessments such as these can literally mean the difference between life and death.

“It’s almost natural for people not to think about transportation infrastructure until it doesn’t work for them, and then it becomes one of the most important things to get right in order to move forward,” said Anderton. “ERDC often provides engineering support to areas around the globe during humanitarian crises; airports and all manner of infrastructure become vitally important when a crisis hits and the world wants to help. “

Now the world can help Liberia.