By Army Staff Sgt Evan Lane, 65th Press Camp Headquarters
/ Published November 09, 2017
Within days, the Army Corps of Engineers can move a river. They proved this recently during an emergency levee construction project here.
The Yauco River had burst from its original path and flooded the Lucchetti community following Hurricane Maria. Immense water pressure and flow caused an entire section of river embankment to be carried away. This caused the river to flow straight through the town rather than bend away. The Army Corps of Engineers was tasked through Public Law 84-99 to build a temporary levee to ensure the water flow returned to its original course.
Emergency flood-fighting activities such as levee construction have to progress quickly to avoid more damage, a USACE representative said. The speed of response is especially important in Puerto Rico, which is in its rainy season.
"Authorization and vetting for something like this usually takes quite a bit longer," said Maricarmen Crespo, head of Army Corps of Engineers operations on the island.
Engineers have to conduct a feasibility analysis before sending out requests for quotes. This can be a long process, depending on the complexity of the project. In the case of the Yauco levee, Corps engineers accomplished the in-depth vetting within three days.
"Our team worked late nights, all weekend." said Wilmel Varela, the resident engineer for all Corps construction and military projects in Puerto Rico. The levee will be made up of more than 10,000 cubic meters of earth. Varela needed to ensure the plan was sound and detailed enough for local contractors to be able to get to work immediately.
"Day one, [the Corps of Engineers] requested bids. Day two, we submitted ours. Day three, they selected us as the construction company. Day four, we had guys here starting work," said Gerardo Ortiz, the general contractor on site and employee of BIM Contractors, the company constructing the levee.
As Varela walked the active construction site with Ortiz and Crespo, he explained the different phases of the project, pausing occasionally to let loud machinery rumble past. Workers first had to plug the overflowing river to protect the community and use truck-sized pumps to drain the area where the levee was to be constructed. That ground was too unstable to support the levee, so it had to be cleared of muck and flattened to provide a good foundation.
"We have many projects running along the island," said Varela, "and I feel glad that I came back to Puerto Rico to support this mission and every mission we have."
Once completed, the levee will be more than 15 feet tall, 200 feet long, and reinforced on the side facing the river with large boulders to prevent erosion. The levy is a temporary flood-fighting measure that will allow the local municipalities much-needed time to work on a permanent solution, officials said.