“I’ve never seen anything as unique as this in my lifetime,” says Fletcher Griffis, a professor at New York University’s Tanden School of Engineering who spent decades in the USACE, including as commander and chief engineer in the New York district. For parallels to the scale and scope of the Corps’ coronavirus mission, Griffis reaches back to World War II, and even further to helping map out the railroads that drove westward expansion in the 1800s.The stakes are impossibly high. Take New York City, the current epicenter of the coronavirus in America and also the locus of the USACE’s efforts. New York governor Andrew Cuomo estimated Tuesday that the state would need 140,000 hospital beds to care for the incoming wave of Covid-19 patients, with an apex coming within 14 to 21 days. There are 53,000 beds under normal circumstances. Cuomo has ordered hospitals to increase capacity by 50 percent, and more if they’re able, but that still leaves a shortfall. Enter the USACE.
Specifically, enter a standardized design, created by the Corps, that with a few site-specific modifications can turn any hotel or dorm space—or convention center—into a makeshift hospital. The USACE has created a model that can be replicated in any city in the country, quickly.“This is an unbelievably complicated problem, and there’s no way we’re going to be able to do this with a complicated solution,” Lieutenant General Todd Semonite said in a briefing last week. “We need something super simple.”