Urgent Care from
by Paige Williams
While Trump flails in the pandemic, the military's builders are getting it done.
The commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is Todd Semonite, a stocky three-star general who recently turned sixty-three. Every workday for the past forty-one years, he has served in uniform. On his left wrist is a FitBit; on his right, the kind of Casio calculator watch that he has worn since he was a teen-ager. In high school, in Vermont, Semonite wasn't the biggest guy on the football team, but he played varsity center; he told a newspaper that size is "not really a disadvantage if you work hard." Semonite and his wife, Connie, live in Washington, D.C., at Fort McNair. On weekends, they renovate foreclosed houses and flip them. They have four children, all of them grown; Semonite, a civil engineer, made cradles for his grandchildren in his woodworking shop. "I mass-produced 'em," he told me, explaining that he would cut the slats and the rockers ahead of time and assemble them once a baby was born.
George Washington created the position of chief engineer at the outset of the Revolutionary War, to oversee the design and construction of military batteries and fortifications. The Corps was formally established in 1802. Combat engineers solve problems through math and physics: they move troops (build the bridge) and protect them from attack (blow up the bridge). The military runs the Corps, but ninety-eight per cent of the agency's thirty-six thousand employees are civilians: geographers, biologists, ecologists, architects. The magazine Undark recently noted that the Corps, which operates under the Department of Defense, "has its fingers in everything from snowmelt modeling and wetlands plant inventories to research on stealth aircraft."
The Corps calls itself one of the world's largest public engineering, design, and construction-management firms. The agency, whose symbol is a castle, built the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, and the Library of Congress. The Corps also manages a vast network of waterways. This time of year -- natural-disaster season -- there is always a dam to fortify and debris to clear; sandbags don't stack themselves.
Like many government agencies, the Corps has had notable failures: the levees in New Orleans, which the engineers maintain, broke during Hurricane Katrina. And the Corps has been accused of mismanagement and bloat. In the early two-thousands, critics cited an investigation by the Army's inspector general, which found that the Corps had manipulated economic data to justify costly projects on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. On "The Daily Show," Trevor Noah called the Corps "the place to go if you want something built -- even if no one needs it."
Semonite has spent most of his career in the Corps, leaving it briefly for a combat tour in Afghanistan: in 2014, he took over a leadership position after Major General Harold Greene, a friend, was killed when an Afghan soldier opened fire at a construction site in Kabul. Semonite supervised the training of the Afghan National Army and worked to prevent corruption by withholding financial aid from government ministries unless they met strict conditions. He once said that he wanted his legacy in Afghanistan to be not "guns and ammo" but "processes and systems."
Semonite was named chief engineer in 2016, by President Barack Obama. He set out to "revolutionize" Corps operations, imposing, among other things, tighter deadlines on projects. Because Congress funded certain jobs incrementally, work that should be completed in three years could end up taking twelve. Semonite told me he decided that "we can't afford to have so much different red tape." He demanded work of "exceptional quality," produced "on time and on budget."
Still, in 2017, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the Corps was denounced for being too slow to restore the decimated power grid. Semonite told reporters that the agency was facing a "massive logistics challenge," including the transport, the installation, and the wiring of sixty-two thousand utility poles, often on mountainous terrain; if moving faster were possible, he added, "we would be doing it."
These criticisms left Semonite with what a colleague described as something close to "scar tissue." He thought of the Corps as a "bunch of expeditionary people" singularly capable of solving the "toughest engineering problems." Semonite's vision is driven more by what he calls a spirit of "ruthless execution" than by design theory: he will never be caught asking a brick, Louis Kahn-like, "what it wanted to be." The Corps's motto is the French term Essayons -- "Let us try." Semonite's mantra is "Deliver the program." And so this past spring, when covid-19 overran the United States, Semonite was determined to provide vital infrastructure quickly. He told me, "America needs a capability to step up when something gets really, really hard."
On March 13th, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, unlocking billions of dollars in coronavirus aid. Two days later, New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo, published an open letter to Trump, saying that, without "immediate action, the imminent failure of hospital systems is all but certain." Seven hundred and twenty-nine New Yorkers had tested positive for covid-19, three had died, and hospitalizations and intubations were soaring. The state had fifty-three thousand hospital beds in its inventory but expected to need more than twice that number by mid-April. The problem was particularly acute in New York City. Cuomo envisaged "people on gurneys in hallways."
During a national crisis, Semonite likes to say, the Corps works as "FEMA's engineer": FEMA authorizes certain missions and pays at least seventy-five per cent of the expenses. Cuomo, in his letter, asked Trump to send in the Corps to expand hospital-bed space. On Wednesday, March 18th, Semonite flew to Albany, in a small jet belonging to the Pentagon. He was joined by Anthony Travia, a division chief at Huntsville Center, a Corps research-and-engineering hub in Alabama that was initially established during the Cold War, to develop missile-defense technologies. The unit headed by Travia builds military medical facilities. He once worked as the chief engineer of a major Veterans Administration hospital in Chicago, where the staff drilled for scenarios involving Ebola, H1N1, sars, mers, natural disasters, and terror attacks. "We were the hospital that stayed open if something horrible happened," he told me.
Semonite had asked Huntsville Center engineers to draft a plan to "stand up" alternate care facilities as a relief valve for hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus. Colloquially, these were being called "field hospitals," but this was inaccurate: a hospital offers such specialty services as surgery. Building a hospital takes years. Huntsville Center's engineers had devised a quicker solution: convert existing structures. At Cuomo's office, Semonite's team presented a proposal that had been prepared almost overnight. The engineers asked the Governor to picture a budget hotel -- say, a La Quinta Inn -- with infrastructure that could be instantly marshalled: electricity, water, ice machines, showers, phones, Wi-Fi, laundry. A nurse-call system could be installed. The front desk could become patient reception. Each guest room could accommodate a patient and equipment, including a ventilator. The carpet would have to go -- fabric collects bacteria. The sickest covid-19 patients require abundant oxygen, which could be delivered via individual cylinders or through a manifold system in which gas is piped to various beds from an exterior tank of liquid oxygen. Rooms could be retrofitted with negative pressure -- to control the spread of pathogens -- by adjusting H.V.A.C. units and baffling doors. Negative pressure works much like a chimney flue: air is drawn out of a room in a single direction and passes through a heavy-duty filter. When Cuomo asked about staffing and supplies, Semonite explained that the Corps's job was to produce "the box" -- it was then the state or local government's responsibility to decide how and when to use it.
On Thursday, Corps engineers and New York State officials visited about two dozen potential sites. On Friday, they assessed each venue in detail. The hotel idea was discarded, in part because negotiations over private property can be complicated. (One of the state officials said, "How many La Quintas you think we've got in Manhattan?") The Jacob K. Javits Center, a convention hall overlooking the Hudson, rose to the top of the list: the facility has two million square feet of floor space, and the state owns it.
Cuomo thought of the pandemic as "one of those moments of true crisis and confusion," like 9/11. Trump had delayed taking federal action, forcing states to compete for ventilators and for personal protective equipment, which wasted crucial time. Two days in a row in March, as the pandemic worsened, the President golfed. (In the U.S., approximately a hundred and forty thousand people have now died of covid-19.) When Americans' "whole concept of life and society" was shaken, Cuomo said, they needed "to see government perform at its best."
The Corps stood up Javits in four days. This was possible, in part, because the military sent medical units -- doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and lab techs who could attend to hundreds of patients. Truckloads of supplies arrived hourly. Corps engineers were trying to figure out how best to partition Javits's vast floor space when someone realized that they could erect the portable walls that were ordinarily used in the hall to create ten-by-ten-foot vender booths. Nearly a thousand cots appeared in nearly a thousand cubicles. Once built out, the floor resembled a trade-show arena, except for the privacy curtain across each cubicle's entrance. Medical personnel arrived from Army bases as far away as Texas. New York National Guard members who days earlier were, say, practicing dentistry in Saratoga Springs coördinated P.P.E. fittings and the assembly of floor lamps.
Initially, the state conceived of an alternate care facility as a place to treat patients who didn't have the coronavirus, allowing hospitals to focus on covid-19. But to everyone's surprise the number of non-covid hospitalizations plummeted; fewer people were getting shot or being injured in accidents, and many elective surgeries were postponed. Javits ultimately had room for twenty-five hundred patients but sat largely empty, even as city hospitals experienced crushing surges and trailer morgues filled up with the bodies of the dead. In early April, as New York hurtled toward its spring peak, Cuomo switched Javits from "non-covid" to "covid" status, calling in the Corps for an immediate upgrade.
The Corps tends to respond to discrete regional disasters whose initial danger quickly passes; the coronavirus, however, could surface anywhere, and all at once. On the flight home from Albany, Semonite had concluded that states other than New York would soon need help, and that the pandemic could last for a year or more. The best way to address such a complicated nationwide problem was with a template simple enough that it could be quickly implemented in a variety of locations. A state needed to be able to pivot, based on how many patients it had and how sick they were. Huntsville Center engineers began thinking about transforming not only hotels and convention centers but also gymnasiums and dorms. During the pandemic of 1918, the Army had converted barracks into hospitals; photographs show sickbeds in packed rows, a dispiriting image that New York officials wanted to avoid. To maintain "battle rhythm" as the planning progressed, Semonite held twice-daily teleconferences, sometimes involving hundreds of people. He demanded "the good-enough solution," warning engineers, "Don't make a science project out of it."
Semonite is known for his ability to succinctly convey complex material using picture-book phrasings like "a lotta, lotta rain" and "super-big sandbags." In practice, engineers use precise parameters in their work. Amanda Pommerenck, a Corps civil engineer who is a division chief in Huntsville, said that, if someone asks her the size of a window, she takes out a tape measure. Quickly subdividing a wide-open space into individual units suitable for potentially complex patient care and infection control was the kind of challenge that made engineers "see double." It is "not normal for an organization like ours to churn out" a project based on such an abstract directive, she told me. Yet engineers are also creative. Pommerenck and her husband, also an engineer, "MacGyver a lot of stuff," she said, adding, "If we don't have the right tool, we make the right tool."
They can also buy it. In late March, Semonite called the C.E.O. of a Florida-based company called pods, which stands for Portable On Demand Storage. A pods container is like a U-Haul without the truck: a steel-framed crate box with a bright-blue roll-up door. pods delivers the box to the customer, the customer fills it up, and pods hauls it to a desired location. pods has tens of thousands of containers in inventory nationwide, and there are many similar companies. In the past thirty years, the U.S. has built fewer hospitals and, more recently, hundreds of rural health centers have closed. Semonite realized that containers modified to house covid-19 patients could temporarily compensate for this gap. A besieged community, he told me, could "flex" in response to a wave of infection: a fleet of containers could be deposited wherever extra beds were needed.
The Corps's research-and-development team has been headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi, since 1929, two years after the Mississippi River caused the worst flood in U.S. history. David Pittman, who leads the Corps's Engineer Research and Development Center, described the array of laboratories in Vicksburg as "Disney World for engineers and scientists." The lab's tradespeople can build practically anything, including large-scale facsimiles of rivers and ports, which facilitate the design of dams and other enormous structures. The first time Semonite toured the Vicksburg labs, he suddenly vanished; his hosts found him in a side room, admiring tools. "He was enthralled," Mike Channell, an engineer supervisor, told me.
On March 30th, Semonite asked Vicksburg to turn a pods container into a mobile negative-pressure room suitable for intensive care, saying, "Just see if it can be done." Citizens were under orders to stay home, but within an hour of Semonite's phone call sixteen men -- electricians, welders, carpenters, model mechanics, and an H.V.A.C. contractor -- reported to a warehouse marked "model shop." Brian Woodrick, a carpenter, had on jeans and a Carhartt T-shirt, a yellow pencil tucked behind one ear; Stanley McCollough, a welder, wore a faded baseball cap with an American-flag patch.
A pods container arrived by truck from Jackson, about fifty miles east. Sixteen feet long by eight feet wide, it stood eight feet tall and weighed about twenty-five hundred pounds, a smidge more than a Mazda Miata. The container had a rubberized floor (easy to clean), and walls of smooth plastic panels (easy to alter). The short side, with the roll-up entrance, needed a transparent door that gave medical staff "line of sight" -- the ability to visually monitor a patient without unnecessarily risking infection. The door also had to be wide enough to accommodate a hospital bed; Mickey Blackmon, who runs the fabrication shop, told me, "You don't find those at Home Depot."
The tradesmen went out for supplies, then returned with fifty-two hundred dollars' worth of materials. By 6 p.m., they were building. They removed the roll-up door and crafted a replacement with sheet acrylic, a piano hinge, and a rubber handle, adding a louvered vent, for fresh air, and sealing it all into place with silicone. The electricians installed L.E.D. lighting. The H.V.A.C. guy inserted an exhaust fan in the rear wall, and just inside the door, at the ceiling line, he mounted a heating-and-air-conditioning unit. Contaminated air would be drawn out the back of the pod, through a hepa filter. Oxygen could be supplied through either pipes or individual cannisters. Mississippi's coronavirus numbers were then low. (The state is now experiencing a spike.) As the tradesmen worked, one remarked that he hoped none of them would wind up in the container.
It took eight craftsmen ten hours to convert the pods box. The team concluded that, with prefabricated doors and practice, a skilled four-person crew could finish the job in half that time. The tradesmen had used everyday tools: tape measure, level, table saw, drill, wire stripper, screwdriver, pliers.
There's an old joke about an engineer being placed face up in a guillotine during the French Revolution: As the blade rises, the engineer says, "Hey, I see your problem!" Tradespeople have a similar compulsion to tinker. After modifying the pods container, the Vicksburg technicians added corner brackets of angle iron and attached the kind of double-wheeled jack casters found on the hitch of a boat trailer. Now a handful of people could maneuver the unit without a forklift.
The Corps asked volunteers to test the prototype in the field. Three containers were used in a simulation one snowy morning in April, at Lake Superior State University, in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. The testers reported that the unit worked well, though they suggested looking for ways to facilitate easier communication between the patient and the medical staff outside the acrylic door. Over all, according to a Corps report, the container approach was "scalable, economical, and effective."
Six more pods containers were placed in a parking lot at United Medical Center, a hospital in Washington, D.C. After a city health planner suggested design tweaks, the exhaust fan was moved to a lower wall position, to avoid drawing contaminated air toward a caregiver's face.
Such changes hadn't been hard to make, and Semonite was pleased. Showing me photographs of the prototype, he said, "That's innovation!" He was already thinking about how modified mobile containers might be used for crises other than covid-19, including as temporary housing for homeless people.
Semonite admires what he calls "discovery learning" -- stumbling onto a solution to a given problem. But he didn't want the Corps to waste time during a public-health emergency grasping around for fixes that already had been figured out. Specs for the modified pods container, along with photographs, were placed in an alternate-care-facility "playbook," which subsequent clients could consult like a catalogue.
Cuomo, the vice-chair of the National Governors Association, was warning other states to learn from New York's experience and to take the coronavirus seriously, saying, "We are your future." Semonite had instructed the colonels who run the Corps's domestic districts to reach out to governors and mayors, telling them, "Let's get ahead of need." At a Pentagon press briefing, he explained that governors who wanted the Corps's help should nominate potential sites for assessment. Corps engineers ultimately completed more than eleven hundred such field evaluations, guided by a checklist: Electricity? Water and sewer? Is there mold? Are there vermin? How close is the nearest hospital? Surveying the capabilities of potential contractors, they asked, "Can you mobilize within forty-eight hours?" At any site where building commenced, Semonite ordered "beds on the ground" before the expected peak of the local curve.
Semonite often visits ongoing projects, because he likes to "look the local people in the eye." He wears a white hard hat personalized with three silver stars. He has been known to show up unannounced at a job site and demand visual support for an engineer's proposal. ("You've got two hours to convince me -- go.") A former aide-de-camp of Semonite's, Lieutenant Colonel Justin Pritchard, said, "I would leave work exhausted, but he's still got energy. He'll crush some e-mail until midnight and be doing it again at six-thirty in the morning." In e-mails, Semonite urges his staff to "finish what we start." Wes Trammell, a civil engineer who runs the Corps construction branch in Huntsville, said, "For an organization like ours, it's good when your leader is hard-charging. That gives us confidence." This spring, at a site in New Jersey, Semonite's lightning-round questions sounded like both a fact-finding mission and a test: "How do these snap together?"; "Any penetrations of the floor?"; "Do you know where Bed 15 is at?"
As the Corps honed its response to the coronavirus, many alternate care facilities received hospital-grade materials. Such sites had to meet fire-safety and medical specifications. Stormwater had to drain well, to prevent mud and mosquitoes. Medical staff needed a dedicated space for donning clean P.P.E. at the start of each shift and removing dirties at the end. At the five sites that I saw being built, in New York and New Jersey, I heard discourses on Y-valves, sewer lift, sink splash, and perimeter hooks. On Long Island, I watched a contractor peer into the innards of a freshly dug trench and exclaim, "A hundred and thirty-six thousand linear foot of plastic pipe so far today!" More than once, I heard a foreman quietly mention that many construction workers had volunteered for the job, despite the risks of contracting covid-19. Crew members guzzled an energy drink called True Eagle as they worked around the clock, in twelve-hour shifts. On Easter morning, during a conference call with managers in multiple locations, the speakerphone at a temporary command center in Nassau County began emitting snores.
By mid-April, with nearly three dozen alternate care facilities in progress or under consideration nationwide, Semonite was clocking each improvement. He had decided that he preferred hard walls to curtains, and he was extremely enthusiastic about merv-13 air filters, which trap particles as small as 0.3 microns. One morning at a site in New Jersey, he demonstrated a wireless nurse-call system for Governor Phil Murphy. Someone pushed a button on a pendant, and a serene FEMAle voice on the P.A. system said, "Room 616, Bed A." Semonite explained that the wireless setup represented a technological advance over work done mere days earlier: "A patient down at Javits has to pull a little string. A light comes on, and then the nurse has to look down and figure out who's the person, just like on an airplane."
The Corps built two of New York's alternate care facilities on Long Island, at suny-Stony Brook and suny-Old Westbury, and one in White Plains, at the Westchester County Center. At the Stony Brook site, near Stony Brook University Hospital, the work started just after Cuomo shut down schools. On the first morning that I visited -- a sunny Saturday in April -- the campus's athletic complex was crawling with construction workers. The previous day, the workforce had peaked, at nine hundred and thirty-five people. Loud machinery rearranged the landscape. The baseball and softball diamonds had disappeared. Subcontractors clustered like high-school cliques: the pavers, the steamfitters, the tin-knockers.
Five white tents the size of airplane hangars had materialized beside the track-and-field venue. Enormous hepa filters were being molded onto the back of each tent. Workers spread resin with rollers and brooms, creating seamless floors that could be easily cleaned. Each patient cubicle needed a dedicated power source, and the contractors had devised a solution that resembled the docking stations at a drive-in theatre: knee-high posts fitted with electrical outlets, connected to wiring that ran beneath the raised flooring of the tent. One contractor said, "We've solved more problems in the last two weeks than in the last twelve months."
Colonel Thomas Asbery, then the commander of the Corps's New York District, toured the tents with executives from Turner Construction, which had won a fifty-million-dollar contract to provide a thousand and twenty-eight beds. Everyone wore a neon vest, a hard hat, and a mask. Asbery had on an N95 and, over it, a hibiscus-patterned mask that his wife had made from a Hawaiian shirt. Looking up at the sprinkler system, which had been installed within a week, he said, "To laymen, it's, ‘Eh, O.K., fire sprinklers.' To an engineer, this is, like, amazing."
In Westchester County, a contractor named Billy Haugland told Asbery that the pace had been dizzying: "Your carpenters come, and then, ‘Oh, here come the electricians!' And then, ‘Here come the plumbers!' And then, ‘Here come the carpenters again!' " Haugland's brother and business partner, Joe, later told me, "I feel like I've been drinking out of a fire hose for fourteen days." The Westchester site was a forty-seven-million-dollar project: a hundred and ten negative-pressure units. The Westchester County Center, originally a theatre, has a red velvet curtain and a ceiling strung with Art Deco globe lights; it now housed bright white sterile cubes, each with an air-pressure monitor looming over its transparent door. It was easy to be awed by the sight of all the gleaming new H.V.A.C. ducts and copper oxygen piping, until you remembered why they were there.
At the scene of a crisis, Semonite likes to position an office trailer branded with the Army star and the Corps castle logo, which he believes can be as comforting as seeing "a red cross on a battlefield, or after a tornado." He told me, "It's, like, ‘Somebody's here. It's gonna be O.K.' "
Semonite grew up in Bellows Falls, in the Green Mountains. His parents, Bill and Jeanne, ran a Studebaker dealership. Jeanne also taught reading, and Bill, a Navy veteran, served as the president of the chamber of commerce and helped build the high school and a church. The Semonites built their own home, atop a long hill. In June, 1965, when Todd was eight, his older brother, Scott, was given a bicycle with hand brakes for his tenth birthday; for days, his parents watched him practice. On June 30th, Scott rode off alone to a swimming lesson, and crashed at the bottom of the hill. A neighbor found him. Scott died at the hospital the next day, of head injuries.
Todd became an Eagle Scout and class president, then attended West Point, the nation's first school of engineering, on a full scholarship. Semonite is not inclined toward self-reflection, but when I asked how his brother's death had affected him he teared up and said, "I think about him all the time." Publicly, Semonite often says that no American should die for lack of a hospital bed.
Semonite speaks in a booming half-growl and in swift, declarative sentences. Since the pandemic began, he has appeared at press briefings with Trump; watching him speak after the President is like swimming from turbulent water into a crystalline pool. He went on Rachel Maddow's show in March, and she gushingly thanked him "for speaking and moving quickly," adding, "It inspires confidence, sir." Junko Yoshida, the former editor of the Electronic Engineering Times, wrote that when she first watched Semonite discussing the coronavirus on TV she almost shouted, "An engineer, at last. Thank God!" Semonite's "refreshing directness," she went on, reminded everyone that "politics and politicians have very little real power to battle the pandemic, because they don't know jack about the nuts and bolts." She praised his focus on elegant simplicity, noting that "the quest for perfection too often ends with a product that's dead on arrival, too late, too expensive." She also liked that Semonite's name "sounds like an explosive."
Semonite's first public event with Trump was in October, 2018, when he joined the President in the Oval Office for the signing of the America's Water Infrastructure Act. When Trump invited him to comment, Semonite noted the legislation's overwhelmingly bipartisan support. Trump responded, "With that voice, he should be a politician!" After Semonite's first televised covid-19 briefing, the White House pressured him to appear regularly on Fox News. Semonite told his staff, "I cannot be the Fox general." He went on Fox but also on CNN, CBS, and NBC, beginning each spot by expressing sorrow for the loss of life. When the actor James Woods, a zealous Trump supporter, tweeted, "How unbelievably great is the #ArmyCorpsOfEngineers?" an Ohio engineer shot back, "They're awesome. Know why? They use SCIENCE to make decisions and don't play games when lives are at stake."
Trump has enlisted the Corps to work on his pet project: building four hundred and fifty miles of wall along the Mexican border by the 2020 Presidential election. Trump has tried to leverage the popularity of Semonite's coronavirus leadership as a way to amass more support for the wall. In March, during a covid-19 teleconference with governors, the President introduced Semonite as a "very, very talented man who I've dealt with a lot on building different things throughout the country." At one coronavirus media event, Trump declared that Semonite and public-health officials were "big stars." At another, he praised Semonite -- who was present, in his dress uniform -- for being "so impressive." Trump asked him to speak "on behalf of the services, and on behalf of the federal government." After Semonite delivered a progress report on alternate care facilities, Trump added, "The General is in charge of the wall!"
The wall consists of vertical steel slats, spaced a few inches apart, that are as high as thirty feet and are topped with an "anti-climb" feature. In a sadistic flourish, Trump asked to have the wall painted black, making it scorching to the touch. The Corps advised against this, noting that the painting and the maintenance could cost millions of extra dollars. Trump backed off, then changed his mind. The wall will be black.
Last year, the Washington Post reported that Trump "personally and repeatedly" pushed the Corps to hire a North Dakota contractor, Fisher Industries, to build part of the wall. The owner, Tommy Fisher, is a vocal Trump supporter; more than once, he told Fox News that his company could build the wall faster, better, and less expensively than competitors. When the company's bids failed, Fisher challenged the Corps in the Court of Federal Claims, calling its procurement process unfair. A government official told me that the company had been "writing crappy proposals" and "couldn't meet any of the specs." The case was thrown out.
In 2018, Kevin Cramer, the representative from North Dakota, who was running for the Senate, received more than ten thousand dollars in donations to his campaign from Fisher and his wife; that year, Fisher accompanied Cramer, another Trump ally, to the State of the Union address. Cramer lobbied on behalf of Fisher, pressuring the Corps to share the winning bids for wall contracts. Cramer's office told me that he requested the documents because the Corps's "contracting process did not value innovation" and "funneled awards only to existing contractors." The Corps, following protocol, refused to provide the bids.
Cramer used his position on two Senate committees that have jurisdiction over the Corps to formally request the documents. The Corps had no choice but to comply. Fisher's bids soon improved. In December, the company received a four-hundred-million-dollar contract to build thirty-one miles of wall in Arizona. The Pentagon's inspector general is conducting an audit of the contract.
Fisher went on to win more wall contracts, and to build other sections on private land. In July, ProPublica reported that there were erosion problems on the Rio Grande riverbank where Fisher had built three miles of wall. Marianna Treviño Wright, the executive director of a nearby butterfly conservancy, told the Monitor, a newspaper in McAllen, Texas, that a storm could topple the wall's slats and shoot them downriver as "projectiles." (The conservancy has sued Fisher.) In an e-mail, Fisher said that he has "replanted additional grass," and that it is "common in construction to have a landscape maintenance period after a project." He added, "The wall is in perfect condition."
Semonite was scheduled to retire at midnight on May 18th. At Corps headquarters, in the Government Accountability Office building, he started organizing his personal effects in three cardboard bankers boxes. One was labelled "semonite: sentimental." The others were marked "covid" and "wall": missions representing opposite ends of the human capacity for empathy.
Semonite's public interactions with the President have led some people to speculate that he privately disapproves of him. During one coronavirus briefing, Trump invited Semonite to watch him field questions; Semonite replied, "Sir, I've got a lot of building to do. I'm going to leave, if you don't mind." Last fall, Trump asked him to describe the border wall's surveillance features, and Semonite said, "Sir, there could be some merit in not discussing that."
The Army oath reads, in part, "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Semonite cannot refuse a lawful order even if he morally opposes it. Defense Department policy prohibits active-duty military personnel from speaking or behaving politically in the public sphere. During a roundtable discussion at a Customs and Border Protection station in the border town of Calexico, California, Semonite, sitting next to Trump, maintained an inscrutable expression as the President lied about a "colossal surge" of migrants "overwhelming our immigration system."
Semonite speaks of the wall exclusively in terms of engineering, skirting its symbolism and its purpose. He likes to say, "My job is to salute." When I pressed him on this, he said that "command climate" is "exceptionally important," and asserted that the military must remain apolitical and be ready to "flex either way, based on where an Administration wants to go." He said, "We have to live to be able to serve another Administration." Recently, in a semi-private moment with Murphy, the New Jersey governor, Semonite said, "I got thirty-six thousand guys. We don't care about political agenda -- we put the money where the biggest need is." Semonite tells his military staff, "If you're building a wall, you don't have an opinion on immigration." He tells them, "You're concrete and steel."
On Twitter, Semonite follows Trump and Ivanka Trump, but no former U.S. Presidents. He follows Fox News and CNN. His wife follows Trump and two of his children, along with Tucker Carlson and Fox News Politics. At the California event where Trump spoke of the "colossal surge" of migrants, Semonite began his remarks by thanking the Customs and Border Protection officers, who "protect America here from within." During a coronavirus briefing, Trump suggested an update on the border wall; Semonite responded, in part, "It's a very, very aggressive build," and said that the Corps hoped to "balance" fulfilling "the Administration's directive" with environmental and public interests, thus insuring that "everybody has a fair shake."
On May 12th, six days before he was scheduled to retire, Semonite notified colleagues that Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had asked him to stay on for now. (When Semonite does leave, he will be replaced by Major General Scott Spellmon, the Corps's deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations.) On the morning that was supposed to have been Semonite's first day of retirement, I met with him at his office, in Washington. He had stopped packing. That day, the Post happened to report that Fisher had won another border-wall contract -- worth $1.3 billion, it was the largest yet.
Veterans have expressed concern that Trump will try to co-opt the military for his reëlection campaign. Trump likes to say that, because of the coronavirus, he is a "wartime President." Semonite keeps a diagram of the Corps's castle logo and mission statement beneath the glass top of the conference table in his office. He called me over to look at it and said, "Pretend you are building a castle. It's got to have a very, very strong foundation." The foundation, he went on, "is treating people with dignity and respect, making sure we don't have sexual harassment, making sure I don't have fraud, making sure that I'm following the law." All these tenets, I mentally noted, have been violated by Trump. But Semonite may simply have been talking concrete and steel.
The pandemic's first peak in New York -- as devastating as it was -- did not prove as large as officials had initially feared, in part because lockdown measures and masks mitigated the rate of infection. The only Corps-related facility that opened was Javits. At least six people died there. The last of Javits's thousand and ninety-five patients were "clapped out" on May 1st, to live bagpipes. One man, sitting upright on a gurney, told his caretakers, "Thank you very much."
FEMA has spent more than seven hundred million dollars constructing Corps alternate care facilities, including nearly three hundred and forty million dollars in New York. The final tally, factoring in labor and supplies, will be far higher. (Cuomo has requested a waiver for the state's share of the costs.) During an emergency, FEMA and the Corps can award "no competition" contracts, which bypass the requirement that the job go to the lowest bidder. Construction contracts went to established partners of the Corps such as DynCorp, a defense contractor, and also to new collaborators such as Haugland Group, which specializes in roads and runways and hadn't built a building before. (The Corps's Web site posts the names of its coronavirus contractors but not the actual contracts; the Corps has not fulfilled a request for that information.)
One morning this past spring, in the command center of the Stony Brook site, a project leader listed equipment flowing into the unfinished facility. A muted large-screen TV, tuned to Fox News, showed Cuomo and a chyron: "All numbers are on the downward slope." The Corps's site manager, Ryan Ferguson, a civil engineer who typically spends his work hours filling Fire Island beaches with sand, said, "At the completion of the project, we're gonna have to turn over some sort of property list." A Turner Construction executive asked whose name should go on all the warranties. A suny-Stony Brook official said, "Governor Cuomo?" Everyone laughed.
The warranty holder is indeed the State of New York. States now own much of the infrastructure that the federal government brought to each site. Nationwide, schools and hospitals and community centers were upgraded with everything from paved roads to air-conditioning. At East Orange General Hospital, in New Jersey, Semonite showed Governor Murphy where the Corps and its contractors had installed a powerful generator by running new electrical wiring beneath a road, to avoid disrupting ambulance service. "That's a permanent fix," Semonite told Murphy. The project, he explained, represented an "insurance policy" against future waves of infectious disease. He added, "Even if you were to put regular staff back in here, and turn these back into offices, in a couple of days of moving people out you now have a two-hundred-and-fifty-person facility."
Murphy said, "Huge."
When an alternate care facility is no longer needed, the state decides whether to "bring it down" or put it in what Semonite calls "hibernation mode." The 1918 pandemic came in three waves: the second, which struck in the fall, coinciding with flu season, was far deadlier than the first. In some states, sites have already been dismantled. Travia, the engineer who flew to Albany with Semonite, told me, "If the city of New York, or Chicago, or New Orleans, asked, ‘What do you think we ought to do with our A.C.F.?' my answer would be: Clean it, service the equipment, lock the doors, do maintenance checks, keep it warm. Because we're going to need it again."
Craig Fugate, a former FEMA director, would often emphasize that during a national crisis it's better to "go big, go early." Semonite told me, "What Fugate always said was that, at the end of a disaster, if there's some things that we put somewhere that we don't use, it's O.K. -- just have it available." Semonite has said, "When you have a life at stake, most of the time we don't want to necessarily try to figure out how to save a lot of money." During a visit to one site, I heard him tell his staff, "I don't have a problem if we didn't get this a hundred per cent right. We got this ninety-five per cent right -- on time."
Between late March and the end of June, the Corps built thirty-eight alternate care facilities nationwide, adding more than fifteen thousand hospital beds. More may be coming in states that initially declined the Corps's help but are now facing coronavirus surges. The conversions have included a Quality Inn (Florissant, Missouri) and a dressage arena (Loveland, Colorado). At a facility built inside the T.C.F. Center, in Detroit, patients could look up and see a large sign: "don't give up hope." Once there is a vaccine, the Corps may be asked to help distribute it.
During the initial build-out phase, state leaders often thanked the Corps for standing out as competent and prepared at a moment when many Americans felt otherwise abandoned by the federal government. In New Jersey, Governor Murphy told Semonite, "The Army Corps was here in our deepest, darkest hour of need, and we'll never forget it." He asked, "When will we see you again, General?"
Semonite said, "Whenever you need me, sir."
This story has been updated to include the oath taken by commissioned officers in the military.
Bonneville Power Administration Leader Elliot Mainzer to Leave for California Post by Hal Berton, Seattle Times, 8/6/20
Corps Leaders Explain Plans to Rapidly Build Hospitals in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic by Hal Berton, Engineering News-Record, 3/3/20
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