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Humanitarian assistance projects provide disaster relief in Nepal

 

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Story by John Budnik

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recently completed two humanitarian assistance construction projects that are now providing critical support services to the population of Kathmandu, Nepal, in the wake of the deadly earthquakes that struck in April and May.

Specifically, USACE Pacific Ocean Division, working through its Alaska District, assisted the delivery of a blood donation center in April 2014 and seven water supply wells in February 2015 to the government of Nepal. The U.S. Department of Defense's Security Cooperation Agency and the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) identified and funded these projects to be integral components of the country's strategy to mitigate the consequences of a major disaster in the Kathmandu Valley. As the country recovers from widespread devastation, these facilities are now being used for their intended purpose.

"There were six different locations that had access to water because of the work the Alaska District did," said Tiger Hession, overseas humanitarian disaster and civic aid program manager for USPACOM. "What they did for the Nepalese is spectacular."

USACE managed the design and construction of the $1.2 million blood center at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu. The facility suffered no damage in the catastrophe and remained operable. In fact, during the immediate aftermath, an influx of donors allowed the facility to reach its capacity of more than 550 units of blood and provide for several surrounding hospitals within the city, said Pat Fitzgerald, project manager in the Alaska District's Asia Office. Additionally, the center's conference room is serving as temporary office space for a section of the hospital that was heavily damaged.

"It was designed to withstand a major earthquake event," he said. "There were no damages to the structural elements. The blood center performed 100 percent as expected."

USACE also managed the $1.3 million installation of the seven wells, which range from 500 feet to 1,000 feet deep. Each one is complete with more than 6,500 gallons of water storage capacity, filtration system and emergency generator. Located throughout Kathmandu, each well can provide potable water for up to 15,000 people following a disaster event.

"[The deep water well] survived the earthquake with minor repairs and provided water for more than 5,000 displaced persons," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Milhorn of the well located at the Nepal Armed Police Force Headquarters in Halchowk, Kathmandu, following a site visit in May. Milhorn served as the Deputy Commanding General-Support for Joint Task Force 505 for Operation Sahyogi Haat, which means "Helping Hand" in Nepali. Also, he is the Commanding General of USACE Pacific Ocean Division.

The task force worked in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to provide unique military capabilities during earthquake relief efforts.

Meanwhile, other humanitarian assignments are either on hold or planned for the future as immediate disaster relief continues.

A site investigation determined that the ongoing construction of a crash and fire rescue center near the Tribhuvan International Airport at Kathmandu did not suffer any damage. Prior to the disaster, the major concrete work was finished with interior walls, electrical and plumbing left to complete, Fitzgerald said.

"Since the earthquake, we have stopped work," said Stan Wharry, chief of the Alaska District's Asia Office. "Our project manager and a structural engineer inspected the blood bank, tube wells and the crash and fire rescue center. We do not want to continue to build unless the site is safe and the location still suitable."

Immediately after the disaster, Wharry said it was the Corps' first priority to establish contact with the contractors to ensure their safety. He added that communication between the Corps and its constructors, Creative Builders Collaborative Ltd., Himalayan Builders and Engineers Ltd., Mukta Dinwiddie MacLaren Architects and New Horizon, has been highly successful and transparent during the difficult time. 

Himalayan Builders' reputation was held in high regard as it was recognized by the Alaska District with the Celebrate Safety Humanitarian Assistance Program Award for the advancement of safety principles in 2013.

"We did not want to pressure our contractors to leave their homes and families in this time of need," Fitzgerald said. "They will return to our projects when the time is right."

In addition to providing project management support, USACE procured about 120 handheld and vehicle radios for the Nepalese Army. On May 27, the Office of Defense Cooperation for the U.S. Embassy - Kathmandu, Nepal, delivered the communications equipment worth $1.4 million, according to a press release. The radios were immediately put into service for recovery operations in the affected areas.

Before the recent disaster, USACE supported Nepal in a variety of ways under USPACOM's Humanitarian Assistance Program. In May 2012, a geotechnical investigation and liquefaction study was completed to assess runway endurance at the Tribuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. In January 2013, an inspection of the Koshi River levee in the Sunsari District was completed to provide a condition report for future maintenance.

"The Corps of Engineers is an important enabler in building USPACOM partner nations' resilience for natural disasters," Hession said. "The Corps helped us develop multiyear strategies supported by actionable projects to achieve our objectives. Their work remains vital in protecting lives throughout the Pacific."

USPACOM develops its humanitarian assistance program, which oversees projects in 36 countries across the Asia-Pacific region, through collaborative planning efforts among the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, USACE, OFDA, host-nation and other federal entities. In the case of Nepal, the plan is to continue to assist the country with building its capacity to be resilient in the face of major disasters, specifically earthquakes, Hession said.

"Over the course of time, these facilities and future ones will improve disaster response," Wharry said. "The engineering and construction industry of Nepal will continue to benefit and advance as well."

As the immediate disaster relief continues, the next steps are to evaluate projects planned and determine their importance - such as the material warehouses proposed just outside the Kathmandu metropolitan area, Hession said. These facilities would be used to store emergency supplies.

Following the initial recovery efforts, USACE will continue to support USPACOM's Humanitarian Assistance Program and help Nepal build its capacity to respond to major disasters in the future. The district is currently in the design phase of the Chaunni Regional Crisis Management Center that will be operated by the Nepal Army in Kathmandu. Following the recent disaster, lessons learned will be incorporated throughout the construction process.

Editors Note: The blood bank and deep water well projects represent two of many other USACE initiatives under USPACOM's Humanitarian Assistance program that contributed to the response and recovery efforts in Nepal.

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