Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
Maria slammed into Puerto Rico Sept. 20, roaring ashore with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, toppling trees and utility poles and destroying the power grid.
Since then, members of the federal workforce have worked to help bring the island out of the dark.
Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support
’s Lauren Colabelli has played a part in that effort since even before the storm made landfall.
Colabelli, a team chief with the Construction and Equipment supply chain
, has worked to ensure generators are delivered to Puerto Rico and other affected islands to provide temporary power while the electric grid is rebuilt.
“I started out as just being the buyer on the contract, and then it developed into taking on the lead role and being the project manager because the mission kept getting bigger and bigger,” Colabelli said. “We realized it wasn’t just one delivery order here, one delivery order there. It is a monster at this point.”
More than 950 generators of various voltage have been delivered to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, through a lease contract through C&E’s Fire and Emergency Services team
“These generators are coming from all over the country,” Colabelli said. “It was critical for us to track where they were at any given moment and when they’re going to get there because, ultimately, the power restoration team that’s on the ground can’t do anything until they have the generators in hand.”
The requirement for daily and sometimes hourly updates on the movement and location of generators going to hurricane-affected areas triggered a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to bring together key figures involved in the power restoration effort in Pittsburgh as part of Task Force Temporary Emergency Power.
USACE was in charge of the mission plan and invited representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and DLA to Pittsburgh to take active roles in the task force. The USACE Pittsburgh district manages the national temporary power contract.
“When they did that, that’s where I came into play, and that’s how it developed into being this huge project,” Colabelli said.
Colabelli said that the heightened sense of urgency surrounding the task force’s operations increased even more right before Maria made landfall.
“I’ve never seen things move so fast and change so fast,” Colabelli said. “At any given moment, especially with a hurricane, if it sways a few miles one way, it could be either devastating or it could be nothing. And it changes so drastically. You’re trying to plan and prepare before it even hits and before you even know what you’re dealing with.”
USACE has subject matter experts who gauge what the power needs are in storm-affected areas based on the assessments that come in from the field.
Requirements are not limited to the generators themselves, but also include the personnel and additional equipment and supplies to move, install, operate and maintain them. Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion made the assessments on the ground in Puerto Rico and relayed the information to the task force in Pittsburgh.
Working alongside USACE and FEMA allowed information to flow quickly between agencies, Colabelli said.
“Things happened a lot quicker just because you had that instant access to each other,” Colabelli said. “It was a great dynamic. You definitely felt a camaraderie with everybody and you’re all focused on the mission, but you all come from different backgrounds too.”
The team leveraged the specialized competencies each agency brought to the combined relief effort, said Rich Ott, action officer for USACE Temporary Power.
“The magnitude of the event has created some challenges, but the agencies are working though it and really helping out the people of Puerto Rico,” Ott said.
The multiagency team also fostered an environment where institutional lessons could be gleaned, Colabelli said.
“You learn a lot from each other,” Colabelli said. “I felt like as much as I learned from them about generators and different types of assessments, I think they learned a lot from us too.”
One lesson was that there are limitations to the number of generators vendors can provide because of the finite number of generators available for lease throughout the industry.
“Finding that out was a learning experience for them because now you have to prioritize what actually is going to get a generator and what is not,” Colabelli said. “At first you get all the assessments and you intend on fulfilling them all. Now they’re going to have to prioritize what gets a generator and what may not because there’s a possibility they may not have enough generators for everything.”
FEMA and the government of Puerto Rico determine the priorities for where the power generators go, according to USACE. High-priority locations include hospitals and water facilities.
Another challenge since the start of the emergency has been transporting the generators to the islands and distributing them from the port because of a lack of readily available local workers.
The generators have now been running for weeks and have to be maintained.
“The generators have been operating for a long time, and they’re not really meant to be running long-term,” Colabelli said. “And they’re running in some austere conditions, some of which they’re not very used to. We’re taking generators, from, say, Alaska, and they’re used to running in these cold, subzero conditions. And you’re driving them from Alaska all the way down to Florida, and then putting them on a boat in rough seas and then putting them in tropical weather.”
A disaster of this magnitude occurring at a location difficult to access has presented layers of logistical problems for USACE, FEMA and DLA, Colabelli said.
“I don’t think anybody ever thought it was going to be this bad,” Colabelli said.
Kenny, DLA Troop Support contracting and acquisition management executive director, praised the work Colabelli did in support of the generator mission.
“Ms. Colabelli demonstrated the highest level of professionalism, and her contributions were herculean,” Kenny said.
The storms’ effects have reached Colabelli’s co-workers at DLA Troop Support who have family in Puerto Rico and remind her of the importance of the mission.
“I have two employees who have family down there and they give me updates all the time,” Colabelli said. “When I was in Pittsburgh, I was really able to shut everything off and just do nothing but work. I knew that if I stayed a little longer and did a little more, I could get those generators on the next ship and it would save a couple of days of time and get them there faster.”
One of the task force members from FEMA who worked with Colabelli went to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He saw the devastation there. But he also saw the progress of the temporary power mission.
“We’re sending these generators, but the conditions are so bad, the roads are so bad … he sent videos and it just breaks your heart,” Colabelli said. “When I can zoom in on a picture and see one of our generators there, it touches you. It really makes a huge impact knowing that you’ve been able to get something down there and affect people’s lives.”