National Guard reservist applies engineering skills to Japan earthquake relief
It's not often someone refers to being 'stuck' in Hawaii, but that's how Trevor Downen initially felt when he was assigned to coordinate relief efforts from Pearl Harbor in the wake of Japan's devastating March earthquake.
'I was frustrated that I didn't get to go to Japan,' said Downen, a U.S. Air Force National Guard captain. 'Two days after the earthquake, (the National Guard) is responding to Pacific contingencies. If we are there, I want to go.'
He'd even prepared for winter in the North Pacific.
'We had our cold-weather gear ready, then I found out we'd be stuck in Hawaii,' he said of his team. 'I thought, 'Well, I'm not gonna need this.''
Although Downen's shoes never made contact with the earth that shook areas of Japan and its citizens to the core on March 11, the Beaverton resident's commitment and expertise played a key behind-the-scenes role in helping survivors recover from one of the most destructive natural disasters ever recorded.
Put to the test
After active-duty tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait, Downen, 28, has served as a National Guard reservist with the Fort Murray, Wash.-based 248th Civil Engineer Flight unit since last September.
He was called to Hickam Air Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to provide engineering and strategic support after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami left more than 15,000 dead, 6,000 injured and damaged or destroyed at least 125,000 structures, according to news reports.
A trained infrastructure engineer, Downen got the call for 'Operation Tomodachi' just days after the mid-March disaster. Problems with funding and coordination, however, delayed his deployment to the operation's Pacific Ocean-based headquarters until April 1.
As captain of the 'S Team,' one of three U.S.-based teams charged with relief efforts, Downen was responsible for surveying and mitigating earthquake damage to two of the three U.S. Air Force bases in Japan.
He spent the rest of April ensuring soldiers had the facilities and resources they needed to support massive relief efforts on the ground.
'I was on the phone every half-hour with the three bases, seeing what they needed,' he said. 'It was my job as battle captain to make sure they had all the installation and mission support, anything they requested related to security forces and emergency management.
'It was a wide spectrum.'
Encompassing engineering construction, project management, structure design, fire and emergency management and coordinating with security and police forces, it was by far the most complex operation he faced since leaving active duty in June 2010.
Being between jobs at the time and doing what he could to support he and his wife, Lindsay, Downen said the mission served personal as well as humanitarian purposes.
'They needed positions,' he said. 'I had several good troops who joined this team. Between peer pressure and looking for work, I thought this might be a good opportunity to use what I've learned in the last four years and continue serving.'
Downen's engineering background served him well in surveying extensive damage at sites such as the Misawa Air Base, which suffered about $3 million in damages. One aspect involved remapping strategic areas where the earthquake and aftershocks had altered key positioning coordinates.
'We surveyed air fields. The island shifted quite a bit,' he said. 'We had to make sure the (global positioning) coordinates were updated.'
One major Air Force operation involved cleaning up the devastated Sendai Airport enough to accommodate delivery of supplies to help the thousands displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.
'We created this mini operation - Operation Shower Power,' Downen said. 'It provided water (so) displaced citizens could go take showers.'
An unmanned aircraft assisted in photographing and pinpointing damaged infrastructure, including that of nuclear power plants such as the Fukushima complex. Meltdowns of three reactors at the plant necessitated major evacuations, and the situation remains highly volatile.
Dealing with nuclear meltdowns proved a challenge, Downen admitted.
'One of the interesting things in my career field is (being) responsible for detection and decontamination of any radiological contaminants,' he said. 'I'm not a radiological guy, but I've learned a lot along the way.
'I'm an infrastructure engineer. But when you're thrown into these situations, a mid-level officer needs to be in charge of a lot of operations.'
Back to normal
After the tumultuous and tedious nature of disaster relief coordination, Downen said he's looking forward to a tranquil summer with Lindsay and the couple's 3-year-old German shepherd, Kona, at the house they share not far from his alma mater of Sunset High School.
A new job as an analyst with the Bonneville Power Administration's operations division will make settling into domesticity that much easier.
'I'm just excited I found something here in Portland,' he said, adding that he maintains his monthly commitments to the National Guard and is subject to an 'occasional deployment or contingency.'
'The job means I won't volunteer as much.'