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Northwestern Division Rallies to Complete Massive COVID Assessment Effort [Building Strong® 2020-2021]

By MATT RABE, Northwestern Division


It has been the motto of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for more than 200 years, but its meaning – Let Us Try – took on even greater symbolism when the call went out in March 2020 for USACE divisions and districts to spread out across the country to locate and assess possible sites for alternate care facilities (ACFs) in the face of the expanding COVID-19 pandemic.

The Northwestern Division (NWD) quickly deployed teams across 11 states, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state emergency management offices, to complete their missions.

The division teams had a single focus and a defined mission; the territory they needed to cover, expansive. Never before did Essayons better define the effort. They were determined not to simply “try,” but to succeed.

“When it was announced the Corps of Engineers would be assigned the mission to look for possible care facilities, we knew we would have a major challenge on our hands,” said John Leighow, chief of the Northwestern Division Readiness and Contingency Operations office. “Northwestern Division covers nearly one-quarter of the continental United States, much of it rural and with communities that might not be ready to handle the crisis that appeared to be unfolding in front of our eyes. Across our five districts, we called for all hands on deck.”

From the Seattle District’s first assessment on March 25 at CenturyLink Field to April 23, when the Omaha District conducted the last assessment in North Platte, Nebraska, NWD’s five districts had completed 167 individual assessments, plus 26 additional assessments in Colorado in support of the South Pacific Division. Of those 167 assessments, the division determined 114 sites were suitable as ACF build outs.


To collect and make sense of all the incoming information, NWD staff developed a Common Operating Portal to help Northwestern Division Commander Brig. Gen. D. Peter Helmlinger see the operating environment and know the location and status of every FEMAassigned mission, which, in turn, allowed him to clearly describe the division’s efforts to higher headquarters.

“We knew quality information would be critical to our success,” Helmlinger stated. “Our people quickly realized we needed to come up with a means to collect and process a huge amount of information to facilitate making timely decisions, and to send back to our headquarters on a daily basis. In the end, they created a dynamic system where we could see the data for a specific site or for the entire region, and balance everything with what we understood to be the real-time COVID numbers and projections. It was quite impressive.”

Assessing possible sites was just the beginning of this mission. Next came constructing them. Multiple approaches were taken to determine where, how, and by whom the construction would take place. That decision rested with the states and FEMA. As FEMA and a state identified each mission, the Northwestern Division was ready to respond.

Seattle District was asked to support the first construction mission – an Army field hospital at CenturyLink Field. By March 29, the Army’s 627th Hospital Center from Fort Carson, Colorado, was on-site setting up a 250-bed, fully self-contained hospital, complete with laboratories and surgical space, inside the event center.

The Kansas City District, working with St. Louis District and the state of Missouri, completed USACE’s first-ever hotel-to-hospital conversion to provide 120 patient rooms, four nurses’ stations, storage areas, a triage center, and meeting rooms for the St. Louis area. The work was completed 79 hours after the contract was awarded.

In Colorado, the Omaha District further supported the Albuquerque District by converting the Colorado Convention Center and a large horse arena at the Larimer County Fairgrounds into ACFs, providing the state with more than 2,200 beds.

Portland District worked with the state of Oregon to convert a former Veterans Health Administration clinic in Eugene into a 42-bed ACF.

Northwestern Division’s last mission saw Omaha District build out the third floor of the Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Kalispell, Montana, to accomodate 100 non-acute, non-COVID patients, freeing up space in the main hospital’s critical care facilities. Construction began on May 11 and was completed 13 days later.

Leighow, the readiness chief, expressed his appreciation for everyone’s efforts to conduct the assessments and construct the sites in very short periods of time. He stated while the sites have not been largely used – to date, only the Eugene and St. Louis facilities received patients – he noted they can remain in place for use in the future should the need arise. The state of Oregon continues to care for patients at the Eugene site.

“Thankfully, the need to [use] these facilities did not transpire,” Leighow said. “However, the states are poised to quickly accept patients, if needed in the future, and we can quickly respond if additional sites are required.”

Helmlinger also is thankful more people weren’t admitted to the facilities, and acknowledged the speed and focus of the assessment and construction teams, as well as others.

“The effort on the part of our teams has been outstanding. Additionally, partnerships and common purpose have been extremely important in this endeavor,” said Helmlinger. “This was truly a team effort here, and we had to have everybody aligned to bring it in on time.

“We could not have been successful without the support of FEMA, as well as the states and tribes, facility owners, the Corps of Engineers, and our construction contractors,” he said.

This article appears in the 2020-2021 edition of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces


The Northwestern Division (NWD) is affectionately known as the “Lewis and Clark Division” in recognition of the region the famous expedition traveled through in 1805- 06 during its storied trek across the continent.

The territory explored by Lewis and Clark remains awesome in its geographical breadth, and its economic, political, and cultural diversity. Nearly 2,000 miles wide, present-day Northwestern Division touches all or parts of 14 states, 48 congressional districts, and more than 90 sovereign tribal nations, making it the largest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) nine divisions. Two of the country’s longest rivers – the Missouri and Columbia – drain nearly 1 million square miles within its boundaries that stretch from Seattle, Washington, to St. Louis, Missouri. Its Civil Works, Military, and Environmental programs surpass $3 billion annually.

For purposes of geographical balance, regional interface, and similarity of issues, NWD maintains headquarters offices in Portland, Oregon, with a regional office in Omaha, Nebraska.

The division commander directs all USACE activities in this area by providing direction and guidance for five subordinate district offices, each headed by a military officer and military deputy, located in Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle and Walla Walla, Washington. The division office also oversees the upward coordination of technical policy and budgetary issues that cross district boundaries and interfaces with other federal and state agencies, congressional leaders, key stakeholders, and international commissions.

The Northwestern Division, as with all other USACE divisions, manages its districts’ civil works activities based on river basins rather than state boundaries. Its primary Civil Works missions encompass flood damage reduction, navigation, hydropower, fish and wildlife, water quality, irrigation, recreation, and disaster response. Within its jurisdiction are 77 dams and reservoirs, 29 hydropower plants, and 1,600 miles of navigable channels.

Military boundaries, in contrast, are organized along state lines. Major Military programs include providing design and construction support to 55 major Army and Air Force installations and dozens of smaller ones. The division also manages more than 2 million acres of military real estate for the Department of Defense.

An Environmental, Interagency and International Services program provides environmental restoration and clean up of hazardous, toxic, and radioactive sites for the military, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies. In recent years, NWD volunteers have stepped to the forefront in support of military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, lending their skills to the reconstruction efforts.

While USACE districts have Civil Works and Military missions, they are frequently distinguished by the nature and amount of civil or military work they perform. In the Northwestern Division, the districts that have a preponderance of military and environmental work are Kansas City, Omaha, and Seattle. The Portland and Walla Walla districts tend to have larger Civil Works programs. In all cases and from all quarters, the five NWD districts consistently achieve top marks for mission execution, customer satisfaction, and quality products.


P.O. Box 2870 Portland, OR 97208-2870

(503) 808-3800


601 E. 12th St. Kansas City, MO 64106-2896

(816) 389-2000


1616 Capitol Ave., Ste. 946 Omaha, NE 68102

(402) 995-2417


P.O. Box 2946 Portland, OR 97208-2946

(503) 808-4510


P.O. Box 3755 Seattle, WA 98124

(206) 764-3750


201 N. Third Ave. Walla Walla, WA 99362-1876

(509) 527-7020