Tony McCoy has always considered himself a “do the right thing” kind of guy, so it was natural for him to consider deploying as a first responder in October when hurricanes wrecked the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
But on October 9, as he started to leave home for his work day as a safety specialist in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco District, Tony found disaster staring him in the face from his front door in Petaluma.
“The sun was coming up toward Santa Rosa, but it was just a red ball snuffed out by smoke,” he said.
For miles to the east, fires were ravaging neighborhoods in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma counties. Whole communities were disappearing as wildfires raced over the hills and through the valley.
“I went to the VFW Post 1929,” McCoy said. “I spent three days helping organize an emergency evacuation center.”
But Tony would come to help in a much bigger way. “I heard that FEMA might assign the Army Corps of Engineers a recovery mission in northern California. I asked that I be considered, since I am from there.”
Corps teammates arrived from around the country to get thousands of properties cleared of debris so communities could be poised to rebuild when the spring construction season arrived. Tony was asked to backfill the safety officer from the Corps’ Sacramento District near the end of November and through the holidays.
As mission safety officer, he would develop plans to help protect hundreds of workers engaged in clearing more than 5,500 properties and moving a million tons of debris in dozens of trucks daily through busy streets to landfills.
“It was very rewarding for me to have a hand in shaping the safety program foundation for the people coming behind me,” McCoy said.
He emphasized that he feels empathy for the contract crews and inspectors in harm’s way.
“My dad died as a result of an industrial accident,” he said. “I try to help them stay safe and even help them understand their benefits.”
The recovery hits close to home, literally. “My kids go to school here. I’ve lived with the smoke and ash. I have several friends who have lost homes here,” he said.
Having debris trucks share the roads with the public is a major challenge on this mission. On average, trucks are entering a landfill every two minutes.
“We recognize that we are encroaching on the daily lives of the residents here,” he noted. “But it is necessary to achieve our common goals…to get back to the quality of life we had before. We are constantly looking to do a better job in managing our operational traffic.”
His program also includes air monitoring for workers, streets, and whole sections of impacted communities. Tony doesn’t carry the load of the safety program alone. A successful safety program depends on buy-in from early assessment teams, workers, inspectors, citizens driving the streets, and many others.
“We have a great group of people and partners in place to do the work.”
The mission remains huge but the Corps expects its debris removal mission to be complete in early 2018.