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For Navy Seabees, Impossible Just Takes a Little Bit Longer

Mon October 31, 2005 - National Edition
Brian Kern

It’s no secret that the large scale construction and reconstruction efforts going on along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Louisiana were spearheaded by the Navy Construction Battalion or “Seabees.”

In response to Katrina, the Seabees had 2,230 construction workers and more than 675 pieces of equipment mobilized and in use eight days after the storm. Seabees “train by doing” so some projects are essentially training exercises.

Navy Capt. Eric Odderstol, commander of the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment in Gulfport, said the Seabees are renowned for the speed at which they respond to emergencies and other circumstances in which their services are required.

“It takes 48 hours to mobilize a 100-person detachment and six days for a full 650-person battalion,” Odderstol said. “If the work’s being done by a Seabee, it’s usually because the operating environment is too dangerous for contractors [some parts of Iraq, for example], or because the nature of the emergency dictates that the work be done immediately.”

An inscription on a Seabee Memorial in Arlington, VA, captures the essence of the organization’s response time: “… the difficult we do at once … the impossible takes a bit longer.”

According to Daryl Smith, a public affairs officer of the 1st Naval Construction Division based in Norfolk, VA, approximately 16,000 Navy Seabees make up the ranks of the First Naval Construction Division.

“There are about 3,000 Navy Seabees currently in the Gulf Coast region and about 1,500 Navy Seabees are currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Smith said.

The Seabees were established during World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Until then, civilians were allowed to work in war zones. The need arose for a militarized naval construction force to build forward-positioned bases.

In January 1942, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell gained authority to activate, organize and man Navy construction units. The Bureau of Navigation granted Moreell the power to recruit men from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction Regiment composed of three Naval Construction Battalions. Moreell came up with the Construction Battalion’s official motto: Construimus, Batuimus — “We Build, We Fight.”

A uniformed military force, Seabees are called upon to defend what they build. A number of Department of Defense civilians and contractor employees round out the force to support operations throughout the world.

“We are all Sailors in the U.S. Navy, enlisted or commissioned directly into the Seabees,” Odderstol said. “We are male, female, young, old, of many races, religions and ethnicities — mostly U.S. citizens, but many are not. Many of us are reservists who work in or own construction or engineering businesses but volunteer to wear the uniform of the Seabee when our nation calls. Some of us are the children and grandchildren of Seabees. The Arlington Seabee Memorial — the other part of the inscription — states: ’With compassion for others we build — we fight for peace with freedom.’ Those inspired by this thought usually become Seabees.”

First Seabees Built American Landmarks

The first recruits were the men who helped build Boulder Dam, the national highways, and New York’s skyscrapers. They were miners, and worked in quarries and dug subway tunnels. They built docks and wharfs, worked in shipyards building ocean liners and aircraft carriers.

By the end of the war, 325,000 such men had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled trades, not to mention the unofficial ones of souvenir making and “moonlight procurement.” Nearly 11,400 officers joined the Civil Engineer Corps during the war, and 7,960 of them served with the Seabees.

According to Odderstol, the officers typically graduate from an accredited four-year engineering or architecture program and are directly commissioned into the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) — a part of which includes Seabee officers.

“A good percentage of our officers, myself included, transferred into the CEC from the ’line’ community early in our careers,” Odderstol said. “The majority of our enlisted personnel enlist into one of the Seabee ratings upon graduation from high school. As with all professions, we have those who found their calling a bit later in life and joined us after having started careers in other professions — or in the civilian sector of construction. All Seabees received technical, leadership, and management training throughout our careers.”

Cleaning Up Katrina’s Wrath

As commander of the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment stationed at Gulfport’s Seabee base, Odderstol was, and continues to be, at the epicenter of the activity throughout disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

“Day one was pretty difficult,” Odderstol said. “It was as bad as it gets — nothing worked.”

All communications were cut off, according to Odderstol, and tactical radios were the only devices available to link them to the outside world.

“The destruction on the coast was at a level of severity that I’m not sure has ever been seen,” Odderstol said. “Every road was blocked. Emergency generators that provide power for medical treatments were flooded out.”

During the first couple of days after Katrina hit, the Seabees had to clear the base of road-blocking debris before they could assist the community and the surrounding region. Once they were stabilized, the Seabees shifted into basic recovery operations.

Odderstol said an additional 1,500 personnel were called to the area to aid the 1,500 Seabees that are home-ported at the Navy Mobile Construction Battalion base in south Mississippi.

“They are starting to return to their home ports now, but we have had people here from Norfolk, VA; Jacksonville, FL; Key West; and King’s Bay, GA,” Odderstol said. “We had a dive team here from the Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk.”

A construction battalion maintenance group from King’s Bay, whose principal mission is to build, maintain and support fleet hospitals, also was deployed to Gulfport.

Life safety and public health issues were at the forefront of concerns among first responders, Odderstol said.

“Getting sewage back where it belonged was a concern of the entire Gulf Coast — we repaired over 100 lift stations that were all flooded out.”

Approximately 200 water mains were damaged as well, and the Seabees repaired the piping that ranged from 2 to 6 in. in diameter.

Off base, the Seabees provided water for victims and fuel for all emergency vehicles. According to Odderstol, the service members hauled gas and water around the clock for several days.

While the exact number is classified, Odderstol said the Seabees have in excess of three equipment sets in Gulfport ready for shipment world-wide to wherever it’s needed.

“Each set includes approximately 325 pieces of construction, material-handling, and weight-handling equipment,” he said.

Project List Extensive

Seabees cleared the port of Gulfport to allow Coast Guard boats back into the area.

Clearing the port also opened the way for commercial shipping traffic, relieving economic concerns for the community.

The Seabees pitched in to repair area schools in the Gulf region. There were approximately 40,000 students attending approximately 100 schools who were affected when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast on Aug. 29.

“People won’t move back into the area until schools reopen,” Odderstol said. “We made temporary repairs so they could start getting back into the classroom.”

Some communities were completely flattened by the storm — down to concrete slabs.

The Seabees were not only instrumental in the clean-up and relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; they also were personally affected by the storm’s impact on the Gulf region.

“Seven hundred Seabees lost their homes and 1,300 had damage of some sort,” Odderstol said.

As they were placing tarps on roofs and removing water-damaged carpet in an effort to stabilize the homes of the first responders, the Seabees also helped neighbors who had sustained wind and water damage.

“There were lots of elderly and disabled people — several hundred — who needed our help,” Odderstol said.

The Seabees erected “C” huts, shower units and laundry units for emergency responders. They also set up fabric shelters for city and county workers.

“We did the site preparation for temporary tent camps until FEMA can come in with mobile homes for the victims,” Odderstol said.

The 16- by 32-ft. tents have wood deck floors with utilities installed.

“It’s still far from normal, but we’re a lot better off than we were a few weeks ago,” Otterstol said. “Most of the water is potable, the roads are passable and there’s no sewage in the streets.”

When asked what stands out the most throughout the ordeal, Odderstol said, “The spirit of cooperation has just been the best.”

Seabees provide a unique expeditionary construction capability to the Joint and Naval forces of the United States throughout the world.

“We train to provide horizontal and vertical construction services in any environment, throughout the full spectrum of Joint Operations — peacetime, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, stabilization, peacekeeping, insurgency and war,” Odderstol said. “To maintain this capability, Seabees are continuously deployed around the world as a ready, on-station construction force to provide immediate response. For example, two days after the Pakistan earthquake, a Seabee Air Detachment was deployed to provide support to the affected region and to aid workers in the area.”

While deployed, Odderstol said Seabees hone their skills through construction of projects specified in a prioritized list of the Fleet Commander.

“During operations, the Operational Commander tasks the Seabee Commander for the engineer support needed,” he said. “Typical construction projects include roads, bridges, forward operating bases, operations centers, water wells, utility distribution systems, field galleys, field hospitals, port facilities and so on.”

Upon return to homeport and as a ’work up’ for the next deployment cycle, Odderstol said Seabee battalions will execute projects that enhance the attainment of construction, project management, equipment operation and other related skills. CEG

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