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U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center responds to Hurricane Laura

Charles McKenzie, left, and Michael Baker operate a drone in Sulpher, La., on Sept. 20, 2020, in support of Operation Blue Roof in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that slammed the Louisiana coast on Aug. 27, 2020. Unmanned aerial systems operators from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi, use drones to help assess homes and determine eligibility for the Blue Roof program. The team also uses the aerial imagery to verify that plastic sheeting was installed per contract specifications.

Charles McKenzie, left, and Michael Baker operate a drone in Sulpher, La., on Sept. 20, 2020, in support of Operation Blue Roof in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that slammed the Louisiana coast on Aug. 27, 2020. Unmanned aerial systems operators from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi, use drones to help assess homes and determine eligibility for the Blue Roof program. The team also uses the aerial imagery to verify that plastic sheeting was installed per contract specifications.

VICKSBURG, Miss.— In the earliest stages of a hurricane, while churning systems are still developing over the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean waters, a team of experts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) keeps a watchful eye over strengthening storms, ready to assist at a moment’s notice with Operation Blue Roof.

Managed by USACE and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Operation Blue Roof helps homeowners in disaster areas by providing fiber-reinforced sheeting to cover their damaged roofs until permanent repairs can be arranged. Most recently, the team has been activated to assist with Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that slammed southern Louisiana in the early morning hours of Aug. 27. 

Clayton Younts, an employee at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC), has deployed in response to hurricanes in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix, Puerto Rico and Texas. Currently, he’s one of nearly 20 ERDC personnel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, working in support of Operation Blue Roof.  

“It’s mainly about helping people, making sure they can get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible,” said Younts, an emergency operations specialist at the USACE Reachback Operations Center, which is headquartered at ERDC in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Younts said that between working with homeowners, contractors and team members, strong communication is key for a successful day’s work.

“It’s fast-paced, changing from hour to hour,” Younts said. “That’s one of the draws for a lot of people that come, you have to work fast with a can-do attitude. At the end of the day, you just try to get to bed before midnight and say that you’ve overcome some of the challenges you faced that day.”

 Josh Marx with the USACE Northwestern Division serves as the temporary roofing program manager, which means he is responsible for coordinating teams to deploy when the storm passes.

“We’re always tracking, watching for any potential storms that may bubble up,” Marx said. “We have to be ready on weekends or holidays, whatever the case may be. Getting everything ready and standing up the call center, that’s no easy task.”

That call center is just one of a few ways affected homeowners can reach out for help. Online and some in-person assistance is also offered. Once homeowners sign up and fill out Right of Entry forms that give permission to enter their property, the process begins.

Inspectors are then dispatched to the homes, where they examine the roofs’ damage and report back to quality assurance specialists, who create the work order for contractors to install temporary roofs. And with Hurricane Laura, the team has added a new, high-tech method for collecting data—aerial imagery.

“This time, we’ve had aerial imagery of the home before and after the storm,” Marx said. “The quality assurance inspectors can assess the damage from a desktop, and they can immediately drop work orders and push them to the contractors.”

Two ERDC employees, both part of the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems team, have deployed to southwest Louisiana to use their technology to help with the Blue Roof process. The team’s aircraft are used to verify that plastic sheeting is installed per contract specifications.

“Another specialty that ERDC brings to the table is really the field management system and the processes we use to get through this mission,” Marx said. “There’s a lot that goes into it—the database, the iPhones and the support for all of that.”

Though the process sounds simple enough, Marx said it becomes complicated as the number of work orders increases dramatically in the days after the storm.

“At the very beginning, the contractor does one roof. But within 6 days, they’re doing 200 roofs per day,” Marx said. “It’s a very quick ramp up, and it’s a very big thing to pull off logistically. But with each storm, we have a much better grasp of the technology and our efficiency only goes up.”

For more information about how to utilize Operation Blue Roof in certain areas affected by Hurricane Laura, visit www.usace.army.mil/BlueRoof.

Operation Blue Roof is currently active in Louisiana’s Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vernon parishes. The deadline to sign up for assistance is Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. For more information about how to utilize the program, visit www.usace.army.mil/BlueRoof.


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