SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Shortly after hurricane Maria left a trail of devastation across the island in late September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began its work under the direction of FEMA to assist in a variety of missions in support of the residents of Puerto Rico.
One of the missions tasked to USACE was Operation Blue Roof, an effort that is intended to be a 30-day, temporary fix for homeowners who need extra time finding a permanent repair. The Blue Roof mission has been used as part of relief efforts for dozens of years, with the largest in scope having been in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The timeline for the temporary roof - from evaluation to install - involves several steps; completed right-of-entry by the homeowner, an inspection of the roof by a USACE engineer to ensure it is eligible for the program, installation by a roofing crew of four-to-five contractors that can usually complete two installs a day, and finally another inspection by USACE to ensure the Blue Roof is properly secured to the roof.
In the early days of the mission in Puerto Rico, the first challenge was obtaining rights-of-entry from homeowners.
"We were going house-by-house, street-by-street," to obtain the rights-of-entry, said Cynthia Rodrigues, a Puerto Rican native who volunteered to help in Puerto Rico as a quality assurance specialist.
The door-to-door effort began in early October and didn't stop until Dec. 1. The service was a supplement for residents that weren't able to make it to their municipality's town hall, call the hotline or submit the information online. This effort, consuming long hours by dozens of USACE personnel, was carried out across the entire island to ensure every eligible resident had the opportunity to apply for assistance.
After the formal request for a right to proceed into the residence was obtained, USACE again mobilized its engineers to conduct the assessments. If certain criteria were met - such as the home not having a flat roof or structural damage exceeding 50 percent - the quality assurance specialist conducting the assessment could approve the project and begin the process of getting a crew to install the roof. In some cases when a home didn't meet eligibility requirements, the homeowner was advised on certain repairs to be made so an additional assessment could be made.
"I would say that for the most within the first couple weeks it was fairly easy to navigate through the larger cities," said Thomas Carriveau, a Blue Roof quality assurance specialist and area supervisor on the island since Oct. 5. "In the early days we were just trying to get more efficient with the GPS down here, identifying one-way streets and things like that. But for remote locations, like in the mountains, it was probably a month-and-half before some of those were easy to assess.
"There were a lot of round-about ways you'd have to go to get to some of these places," said Carriveau. "You'd figure out how to get there then it would take two hours to get back out. That was all just the sign up process."
The problems ranged from a need to hit every one of the 78 municipalities in the same timeframe to washed-out roads, failed bridges and debris hindering logistical efforts. The deadline for residents to submit their rights-of-entry was pushed back twice, and is currently set to end on Jan. 3, 2018.
Despite the obstacles, teams such as the ones led by Carriveau worked endless hours to obtain the rights-of-entry and complete assessments in order for roofs to start going up.
"It wasn't too far into this until we started installing, I would say at least during my first week here they were doing installs," said Carriveau. "At that point they were still trying to figure out what worked, what didn't work. It was probably two-to-three weeks before they really picked up and started putting up decent numbers for installs."
By this time, in early November, lessons were being learned as crews from the single contractor installing the roofs were hitting their stride. As of Dec. 14, four contractors were actively working throughout the island.
"This is a different than a lot of the blue roof missions in the past, from my understanding," said Carriveau. "Everything I was hearing was the extent of the damage and the types of homes with that kind of damage, we didn't have an efficient method to cover that many homes with that kind of damage and those kinds of roofs. But I think we found an efficient way to put a temporary roof on. The crews are now able to knock them out fairly quickly. They're averaging usually around two roofs a day, and that includes the challenges in getting to the site.
Ideally, Blue Roofs are installed on houses with pitched roofs. On Puerto Rico, nearly flat structures with metal roofs provided less than ideal conditions in that they could pool water or tear the fiber-reinforced plastic sheeting. A whole new process to effectively install Blue Roofs first had to be learned, then taught to all of the locally-hired crews.
"I feel like we are in a good place now, we've got these four contracts in place now," said Carriveau. "They all look pretty promising. The fourth contractor is still getting organized, but they've got a good plan laid out - and from what I'm understanding they've got the crew support already so they shouldn't be far off from putting up some decent numbers, and I think we're really going to start putting some roofs up soon."
As of Dec. 19, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates 70,000 to 75,000 homes in Puerto Rico will be eligible for Operation Blue Roof, with nearly 23,000 installed. During the past few weeks, crews have consistently installed more than 400 roofs a day, with that number expected to rise as the pace of work quickens with new contractors in place, workers hired and crews trained.
The Temporary Roofing website is www.sad.usace.army.mil/blueroof, and residents can call 1-888-ROOF-BLU (7663-258) for more information and to request a temporary roof.