The feds are good at building big things fast, especially in emergencies. And the COVID-19 pandemic has been a national emergency where such skills have been crucial, and where the decisions of when and how to deploy resources have had life-and-death consequences.
Most Americans with an opinion on how physical resources ought to be marshaled in the war against the powerful and dangerous virus admire that federal capacity. What Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) did recently at the Javits Convention Center in New York City and what the Defense Department did in deploying the USNS Comfort hospital ship to New York City provided awesome demonstrations of capability in an important cause.
On March 20, FEMA made federal emergency aid available to New York State to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal cost share of 75 percent became available for emergency protective measures for areas affected by COVID-19.
Efforts focused on reducing the medical supply-chain capacity gap. For the feds, this was an exercise in logistics. The initial goal was to relieve pressure on medical supply capacity. Doing so efficiently would save lives.
According to an April 8 release, FEMA then turned more toward a strategy of expanding domestic production of these critical resources. That meant closer coordination and planning throughout the entire life of the emergency.
“Planning makes it possible to manage the entire life cycle of a potential crisis,” explained a FEMA playbook. “Strategic and operational planning establishes priorities, identifies expected levels of performance and capability requirements, provides the standard for assessing capabilities, and helps stakeholders learn their roles.”
Matthew Ludwig, who lives with his wife and three boys in New Paltz, is the Chief of Construction for New York District who delivers engineering services for the Army Corps of Engineers. These days, Ludwig, who has an office in the Federal Building in lower Manhattan, says he spends some of his time in Albany working with the governor’s office, coordinating the building of field hospitals and other infrastructure required to deal with the current pandemic.
The feds got good at logistics a long time ago, as early in the nation’s history as Valley Forge. The Corps of Engineers got its start in the Hudson Valley more than a century and a half ago. Its insignia bears a stylized image of the turreted medieval castle used as part of the Pershing barracks by the United States Military Academy at West Point. ACE boasts of being the largest public engineering design and construction management agency in the world.
Ludwig’s own work includes a long stint of coordination on behalf of the Corps of Engineers of planning projects involving New York City’s water supply system. The agency’s initial responsibility had been to protect and maintain the navigable capacity of the nation’s waters. A certain amount of mission creep followed. “Changing public needs, evolving policy, court decisions and new statutory mandates have changed several aspects of the program including its breadth, complexity and authority,” explained the agency.
ACE technical help was needed to determine whether New York City, by far the largest municipality in the nation that doesn’t filter its public water supply, could continue to avoid the ten-billion-dollar expense involved in filtration. ACE also had regulatory authority. After New York City agreed to spend over a billion dollars in its upstate watersheds, a federal filtration waiver was granted. Another such agreement followed in 2018.
With New York City hopefully beyond the worst of this wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is an opportune time to focus on how close the overstrained healthcare facilities of the nation’s largest city came to system collapse. The coordinated planning and provisioning of healthcare resources, the specialty of the Army Corps of Engineers, was tested.
Governor Andrew Cuomo was the central figure in the New York drama. Ludwig felt the governor understood the scope and magnitude of the crisis. He realized its high-risk urgency. He saw how quickly it was changing. He was in the forefront of understanding the imperfect modeling that went into resource allocation.
In cooperation with state officials and with FEMA, ACE assessed different sites and scenarios. Ludwig said he noticed the cooperative attitude of the contractor community. “They all asked, What can we do to help?” he said, “There was a degree of patriotism that impacts everyone. They felt, It’s everybody.”
A rock climber by avocation, Matt Ludwig likes many things about family life in New Paltz. Through his work, he’s now accumulated his share of experiences in the Hudson Valley. For instance, he says he misses the good pizza he used to get on Route 28 while he was meeting with New York City DEP officials near the aerators across the dividing weir separating the west and east basins of the Ashokan Reservoir.
He also recommends a walk on the newly opened 13-mile Ashokan rail-trail along the Route 28 corridor – a significant watershed project which he had a role in bringing about.