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Army Corps Launches Alternate Care Facility Construction

Image of three men in construction gear standing around plans USACE Commanding General Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite meets with Jacksonville District engineers and contractors at the Miami Beach Convention Center (Courtesy Photo)

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The governor of Florida and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) commanding general met with county and city leaders in Miami Beach Wednesday to discuss construction of an alternate care facility in the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, USACE Commanding General and 54th Chief of Engineers, joined Gov. Ron DeSantis, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber on a tour of the 500,000 square foot facility that the Army Corps of Engineers began transforming into a 450-bed alternate care facility Tuesday.

Semonite said the Corps has a long history of partnering with Florida for many reasons, but none quite as important as the current mission.

“We’ve been working in Florida for almost 100 years. Disaster response, Everglades restoration, beach renourishment, but I can’t think of a more noble task than saving the lives of Floridians who have been infected by this virus.”

DeSantis said the ability to quickly transform the convention center into a medical facility that will provide 450 beds, 50 of them intensive care units, is testament to the strong partnership the state has with the Army, including the National Guard that will provide 184 members to help staff the facility and USACE, which has a long history of engineering solutions for the state of Florida.

“So this will provide a lot of resources should the need arise to be able to care for patients, and this is going to be a facility that will accept COVID patients,” DeSantis said. “You know, some of the overflow that’s been done in other parts of the country, initially they wanted them for non-COVID. This is designed for COVID, so if someone has it, this facility is going to be able to accommodate that.”

Building health care facilities isn’t a new task for USACE, which has years of experience designing and building hospitals and clinics for the military health system. The difference is the speed with which the alternate care facility must go up and the need to retrofit existing buildings to meet the needs of the medical community without new construction.

“There’s a lot of supporting requirements,” Semonite said. “What do you do for showers? There aren’t a lot of showers in a convention center, so how do we bring those in? What do we do for oxygen? How do you run patient receiving, or patient discharge? PPE transitioning – every time a nurse walks out to take a break, how do you make sure they are going through the right protected areas to be able to drop that off and make sure those things go away.”

Miami-Dade’s Gimenez said the important takeaway from the speed and complexity of the undertaking is the incredible collaboration between the different levels of government.

“This is a great example of the cooperation between the federal, state, county, municipal governments,” Gimenez said. “What’s being constructed here is a 450 bed facility, temporary hospital that we hope never to use. But we have to have it, just in case we do need it, it will be here for our residents.”

Gelder, who was elected in 2017 as mayor of Miami Beach, said there was never a question about using the convention center – when asked to allow the $22.5 million retrofit on short notice, the city was all in.

“We know you’re going to take over our convention center,” he said. “It wasn’t really a question. You need to do it. We’ll find a way.”

While the original contract for the facility completion was scheduled for April 27, Semonite said the governor made clear that if Florida does end up needing the overflow, it will need it sooner than the original date.

“The governor just sat with me in the trailer behind us and said ‘you’ve got until the night of the 20th of April.’ There’s no time to design and build it. We have a suspense and we have to get it done,” Semonite said.

Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of USACE’s Jacksonville District that received the mission assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take on this project, said the district will work tirelessly with its contractor to meet that deadline.

“Our goal is to have this area ready by the 20th,” said Kelly. “We expect to have crews on site working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to get us there.”

In an odd twist, it seems everyone from the State and the Army side are hoping that this is one project that gets built but never used.

DeSantis said right now the state has about 43% availability in hospital beds, and trends show the possibility that the social distancing efforts the state has enacted are working well enough that the additional facilities like the convention center will be unnecessary.

“I would much rather be prepared for the worst, and the worst not come here, than not be prepared,” DeSantis said. So what you’re seeing here today is the State of Florida, the Army Corps of Engineers, Miami Dade County, and Miami Beach doing all we can to be fully prepared.”

Or as Miami Beach’s Gelder said, “We are planning for the worst and praying for the best. And we will be ready either way.”

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