U.S. and international agencies carrying out Operation United Assistance have wrapped up work on the final two of 10 Ebola treatment units in Liberia, a top engineer with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) said Jan. 23.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District’s Forward Engineer Support Team-Advanced played a part by providing technical expertise to the organizations, military units and humanitarian workers locked in the massive Ebola fight in West Africa.
Lt. Col. Lee Hicks, Joint Force Command-United Assistance engineer for the 101st, said 36th Engineer Brigade and Armed Forces of Liberia engineers had the lead on ETU construction, alongside the primary contractor, Fluor. The USACE team made site visits around the country, delivering technical inspection oversight and solid guidance to the people, units and agencies that made key decisions. It’s also been instrumental in the construction of four Army Field Temporary Lab sites.
“The engineering portion of the mission has been very successful, and the Corps has been vitally important to us,” Hicks said in a telephone interview. “They helped at the lab sites with environmental assessments, power generation and general engineer-type work. They also helped with some design and material acquisition. Then, the 36th would send their troops out to build the lab.”
Maj. Michelle Dittloff, the FEST-A commander, said the first eight ETUs were completed about a week after New Year’s Day, around the same time engineers began base closure and consolidation, anticipating a reduced footprint for Operation United Assistance’s enduring requirement in Liberia.
The FEST-A continues to support 101st engineers, the JFC and U.S. Agency for International Development – which heads up the operation – with project development, life-support and logistics facilities, assessments and assistance, particularly in the areas of quality assurance, inspection and contract supervision. Dittloff said the FEST has acted as the primary engineering arm for all construction and renovation required to sustain a U.S. military presence that topped 3,000 troops at its peak.
Three months into a deployment that could stretch up to 180 days, the USACE group has performed admirably under difficult conditions, she added.
“They’ve been fantastic,” Dittloff said. “The technical capabilities and expertise they bring round out the capabilities of the 101st very well. Sometimes, I think we’re like the fire department. We get called upon when a technical solution is needed quickly. … When things go wrong, they may or may not understand construction issues in a traditional way. It’s not something they routinely do, so they need us for nonstandard construction issues.”
The FEST-A left Wiesbaden, Germany, for Liberia in October with a 13-member team of military and civilian technical experts, from civil and environmental engineers to real estate and power-generation specialists. It’s augmented by personnel from other districts within USACE and its North Atlantic Division.
The team is down to six civilians and four Soldiers, who remain at Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, awaiting word on the mission’s next stage, Europe District officials said. The Department of Defense is weighing options and expected to make a decision soon on the way ahead.
“Our relationship with the Corps of Engineers has been very, very good,” Hicks said. “They had a big part in leasing real estate and securing land we needed for our sustainment brigade. That took a few weeks to iron out, but they were able to get it done.”
Dittloff said the FEST-A did a few construction and design reviews for ETUs and managed some specific civil engineering solutions. An electrical engineer was frequently on-site. The team also examined code variations.
“We did a lot of working with the contactor to find safe solutions for appropriate material acquisition,” she said. “In the U.S., it’s normally very easy to get a hold of materials. It’s much more complex to get on short notice in Liberia.
“I think we eased a lot of concerns for the 101st by providing that expert oversight for contract solutions. We’re closely integrated with them. There’s a validation our team brings to these decisions that’s not available organically in a light Infantry division.”
Transition of the ninth ETU in Zorzor took place in mid-January. The last one set for activation is in Barclayville. All others are operational, turned over to U.S. and international aid workers or nongovernmental medical staffs.
According to recent World Health Organization estimates, Ebola has infected more than 21,000 people and killed nearly 8,400 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — the West African nations hit hardest by the epidemic. But media reports indicate new cases of the virus are down dramatically in Liberia.
The Ebola epidemic there will be largely contained by June if medical workers can hospitalize 85 percent of those infected, the Tribune News Service reported earlier this month, citing a new analysis published Jan. 13 by researchers at the University of Georgia’s Odom School of Ecology.
“We’re seeing one new case of Ebola a day in the entire country,” Dittloff said. “While there’s still a concern we might see a resurgence, many of the counties have been declared Ebola-free. … All the agencies involved in U.S. aid efforts have been a tremendous help, but most of the credit really goes to Liberia itself for making all the preventive measures well publicized. The country has committed very well and taken this very seriously.”
From the outset of Operation United Assistance, the FEST-A conducted reconnaissance and site selection while forging land-use agreements for the Army Field Temporary Lab sites.
Jennifer McCarthy, a New England District environmental scientist, was among team members who visited the Sanniquellie and Fish Town lab sites for an assessment of existing conditions and needs. Maintaining environmental-regulation compliance is an ongoing effort.
“It's important to work with the local communities to find a suitable lab site and then support it with adequate infrastructure,” she said. “From an environmental standpoint, the primary concerns are typically waste management. It is crucial that contaminated medical waste be handled and disposed of safely, and that adequate capacity exists in septic systems for use by lab personnel.
“Much of rural Liberia is densely vegetated with heavy rainfall and high water tables. In our environmental assessment, we look at how this challenging landscape will affect drainage and constructability of new facilities, and we also consider the effects of land clearing, grading and drainage improvements on the local ecosystem.”
Having multiple labs in close proximity to areas of potential outbreaks allows samples to be tested quickly and likely helped slow Ebola’s spread while speeding up treatment of patients, officials said.
With all force providers now in the operations and maintenance phase, officials have shifted attention to theater-closure planning and realignment.
“We’re reducing our footprint right now and reducing unnecessary capacity in U.S. support systems, anticipating a possible drawdown,” Dittloff said. “They are centralizing Soldiers into certain areas. We’re closing down the seaport in Buchanan, as 101st equipment gets shipped home. Facilities at the National Police Training Center are also being shut down.
“The breakdown of materials for force providers is underway. The FEST workload has increased, as we expect to be critical to the mission adjustment.”