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Editor's Note: One Nation, Under Quarantine

March 30, 2020
FROM OUR APRIL ISSUE: Nobody asked for this, but a brave new world is now upon all of us. And engineers and contractors are mobilizing rapidly to help us all to adapt and to win this fight.

The last time I felt this disoriented writing an editorial for a construction industry audience was in October 2001, not long after 9/11, when I worked at Design-Build magazine. Even then, however, daily life for most Americans was much closer to “normal" than it is today, amid the weeks-long, widespread, shelter-in-place response to the Coronavirus global pandemic.

Sitting at home now, as you may be when you read this, I was struck by three separate news items as I composed this essay. First, I saw it reported that on March 25, New York City Emergency Services had received 6,406 calls to 9-1-1, surpassing the record number set on September 11, 2001. (The ensuing two days also surpassed that one-day record!)

Think about that. Just astounding.

Then I learned that retired engineer John LaPlante, 80, former chief of the Chicago Dept. of Transportation and someone I had interviewed for Engineering News-Record in 1992, had died from COVID-19. Reports indicated that he had contracted the disease on a recent trip to Egypt.

As my mind reeled from this information, aware also that an elderly friend from church (an Ingersoll Rand retiree) had tested positive and was now in his fifth day on a respirator at a local hospital, it was another engineer who talked me down. There, on my television, was Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and he was all business.

Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Corps had already completed 78 site assessments across the U.S., he said, and was doing 103 more in all 50 states, determining how and where to add emergency hospitals and related healthcare capacity. “We need to do something very, very quick — most governors have told us they expect this to peak in mid-April,” the general told MSNBC. “So our goal now is to go into existing facilities and to modify them; sites like hotels or sports arenas that are already built to code, already have water, electricity, and fire safety.”

To see the 10-minute interview, click here.

Gen. Semonite said the Corps was looking at four types of sites: college dorms, hotels, sports arenas and convention centers. It will be up to local emergency managers “to determine whether those sites will be COVID or non-COVID,” he explained. “We don’t have time to do this with strict governance. We need to trust our engineers and to be very, very aggressive.”

Toward that end, he said New York City was already a test case and that the Corps was working with local authorities to convert the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a potential hospital that can hold 2,900 people. Similar work was also being discussed for the Seattle Seahawks stadium, he said. And Chicago’s United Center already is being converted into a logistics hub. “Contractors are calling us and asking, ‘What can we do?’” 

Well, contractors and engineers can do a heck of a lot. So, thank you, all of you, for all that you can do, or are doing, even if it’s just staying at home and not spreading infection. This is an extraordinary time and it is fascinating to watch our industry pivot and adapt to this new playing field, for who knows how long. Meanwhile, amid myriad event cancellations, project shutdowns, and reassessments of budgets and planning, industry associations are increasing their online training and webinars and exploring more video conferencing technology to help members and employees stay connected.

Here, at HPAC, we intend to do the same. To keep calm and to carry on, and to serve you however we can. Visit our website and Twitter feed for updates and opportunities as this crisis unfolds. And tell us your own stories so that we may share them with fellow readers. Like you, we are in this for the long haul.

Please e-mail me at [email protected].