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“They lost everything”: What it's like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District
Published July 7, 2021
Corps personnel assessing scorched infrastructure after the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, which covered more than 245,000 acres of land. In coordination with FEMA, corps volunteers deployed to Sonoma to support the Consolidated Debris Removal Program which removed more than 2.2 million tons of ash from the affected areas (U.S. Army photo by Carol Vernon).

Corps personnel assessing scorched infrastructure after the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, which covered more than 245,000 acres of land. In coordination with FEMA, corps volunteers deployed to Sonoma to support the Consolidated Debris Removal Program which removed more than 2.2 million tons of ash from the affected areas (U.S. Army photo by Carol Vernon).

A scorched car frame that survived the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. The frame, among other debris, was cleared before disaster response crews could begin rebuilding the housing lots (U.S. Army Photo by James Frost).

A scorched car frame that survived the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. The frame, among other debris, was cleared before disaster response crews could begin rebuilding the housing lots (U.S. Army Photo by James Frost).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Puerto Rico community celebrated Christmas by using birdhouses to build a nativity scene. Several of the birdhouses’ roofs are painted blue to symbolize the corps’ Blue Roof mission. Operation Blue Roof provides homeowners in disaster areas with temporary roofing, made of fiber-reinforced sheeting, that protects damaged roofs until permanent repairs can be made (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Puerto Rico community celebrated Christmas by using birdhouses to build a nativity scene. Several of the birdhouses’ roofs are painted blue to symbolize the corps’ Blue Roof mission. Operation Blue Roof provides homeowners in disaster areas with temporary roofing, made of fiber-reinforced sheeting, that protects damaged roofs until permanent repairs can be made (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).

The remains of a house after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).

The remains of a house after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).

In response to hurricanes Laura and Delta, Pittsburgh District members Ben Caparelli and Pete Gerovac deployed to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide quality assurance support for Operation Blue Roof (U.S. Army photo by Ben Caparelli).

In response to hurricanes Laura and Delta, Pittsburgh District members Ben Caparelli and Pete Gerovac deployed to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide quality assurance support for Operation Blue Roof (U.S. Army photo by Ben Caparelli).

Picture a city the size of Manhattan. Now picture 10 Manhattans ablaze.

Nearly everything is gone. Seared car frames line the street. People sift through the ash where their homes used to be for whatever may have survived: jewelry, wedding gifts, a vase their mother gave them. Everything smells like melted plastic and smoke.

That is what James Frost, a natural resource manager at Berlin Lake in Ohio, walked into when he volunteered to help Paradise, California, recover from the 2018 Camp Fire. The fire is the largest and deadliest wildfire in California’s history.

A scorched car frame that survived the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. The frame, among other debris, was cleared before disaster response crews could begin rebuilding the housing lots (U.S. Army Photo by James Frost).
“They lost everything”: what its like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities
A scorched car frame that survived the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. The frame, among other debris, was cleared before disaster response crews could begin rebuilding the housing lots (U.S. Army Photo by James Frost).
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 210707-A-XW512-1002

Frost traveled 2,500 miles from his home in Ohio to help these communities recover – no easy task.

The blaze covered more than 153,00 acres of land, forcing 52,000 people to evacuate from their homes, destroying 18,000 buildings and causing more than $16.6 billion in damages.

“I was overwhelmed, to say the least,” said Frost. “These people lost everything in the blink of an eye. All of it – their homes, their infrastructure, everything – up in smoke.”

The remains of a house after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).
“They lost everything”: what its like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities
The remains of a house after the Camp Fire in Paradise, California (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 210707-A-XW512-1003

Clad in steel-toed boots, a hard hat and safety gear, Frost began the first of 72 days working as a quality assurance inspector trying to help put the community back together.

Debris-removal missions for disaster responses are assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Working as a quality assurance inspector, Frost ensured on-site contractors accomplished this task. Clearing scorched infrastructure from the area gave property owners a clean slate to rebuild their homes.

Corps personnel assessing scorched infrastructure after the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, which covered more than 245,000 acres of land. In coordination with FEMA, corps volunteers deployed to Sonoma to support the Consolidated Debris Removal Program which removed more than 2.2 million tons of ash from the affected areas (U.S. Army photo by Carol Vernon).
“They lost everything”: what its like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities
Corps personnel assessing scorched infrastructure after the October 2017 Northern California Wildfires, which covered more than 245,000 acres of land. In coordination with FEMA, corps volunteers deployed to Sonoma to support the Consolidated Debris Removal Program which removed more than 2.2 million tons of ash from the affected areas (U.S. Army photo by Carol Vernon).
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 210707-A-XW512-1004

Frost is no stranger to deploying. Since he began working for the Pittsburgh District in 2017, he has volunteered to support eight relief missions, including Hurricane Maria and Tropical Storm Michael.

According to Al Coglio, chief of Emergency Management for the Pittsburgh District, relief deployments are unique opportunities for Department of Defense employees. Anyone can volunteer to deploy to communities devastated by hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, or other disasters.

Once a district personnel volunteers, they are instructed to be ready to deploy with little to no notice. Having a “fly-a-way” bag ready that contains protective gear such as gloves, hard hats, eyewear is a must. Sometimes personnel will be alerted in as little as six hours that they need to board a plane to disaster areas.

Nearly 100 district personnel have deployed since 2019 to myriad places such as Florida, Guam, Saipan, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

“We have a saying: ‘all disasters are local,’” said Coglio. “We get temporary power units to communities that don’t have power, so their critical infrastructure is back up and running. They can start to recover.”

Power impacts everything in a community, from critical facilities like hospitals and police stations to simple home amenities like running water. Seeing these areas without power is a major paradigm shift for many who deploy.

“In Puerto Rico, they didn’t have power for more than 100 days. I can’t imagine what that was like,” said Frost. “Seeing these communities without power makes you realize how much you take for granted and how fragile our livelihoods are.”

Deployments are not just about helping communities rebuild their infrastructure. For Kristen Day, an emergency management specialist for the Pittsburgh District, they are about the people getting their lives back.

In response to hurricanes Laura and Delta, Pittsburgh District members Ben Caparelli and Pete Gerovac deployed to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide quality assurance support for Operation Blue Roof (U.S. Army photo by Ben Caparelli).
“They lost everything”: what its like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities
In response to hurricanes Laura and Delta, Pittsburgh District members Ben Caparelli and Pete Gerovac deployed to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to provide quality assurance support for Operation Blue Roof (U.S. Army photo by Ben Caparelli).
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 210707-A-XW512-1005

“Powering up a community with FEMA generators brings life-saving and life-sustaining functions, but it also brings joy and happiness to these devastated communities,” said Day, who has deployed six times in the past few years to places like Guam, Puerto Rico and North Carolina. “Witnessing these people, who haven’t had basic amenities since the disasters, get their hospitals and clean drinking water back is sheer magic.”

For Frost, he was astonished by how resilient people can be.

“They survived a horrible disaster, they lost everything, but they banded together to help one another, friends and neighbors alike,” said Frost. “They took care of each other.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Puerto Rico community celebrated Christmas by using birdhouses to build a nativity scene. Several of the birdhouses’ roofs are painted blue to symbolize the corps’ Blue Roof mission. Operation Blue Roof provides homeowners in disaster areas with temporary roofing, made of fiber-reinforced sheeting, that protects damaged roofs until permanent repairs can be made (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).
“They lost everything”: what its like to deploy to disaster-stricken communities
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Puerto Rico community celebrated Christmas by using birdhouses to build a nativity scene. Several of the birdhouses’ roofs are painted blue to symbolize the corps’ Blue Roof mission. Operation Blue Roof provides homeowners in disaster areas with temporary roofing, made of fiber-reinforced sheeting, that protects damaged roofs until permanent repairs can be made (U.S. Army photo by James Frost).
Photo By: Andrew Byrne
VIRIN: 210707-A-XW512-1001