Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune responds to natural disasters: Colonel Lecce look back, ahead to 2012

16 Dec 2011 | Lance Cpl. Lia Adkins

Even the best meteorologists could not have predicted what Mother Nature had in store for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in 2011.  MCB Camp Lejeune was hit with a record amount of snow, two fires, a tornado and a hurricane, all occurring only months apart. However, the trials the disasters brought with them only helped the base emerge stronger and more united.

“People who have worked here for more than 30 years have never seen (a year) like this,” said Col. Lecce, MCB Camp Lejeune commanding officer. “We maintain a certain level of preparedness at all times, but in many ways, we were reactive to the larger disasters. The initial one was the flood, where we received about 29 inches of rainfall over three and a half days, which was just unprecedented. Then although it wasn’t a disaster, we did have record snowfall.”

In mid-January, snow fell in Onslow county and surrounding areas, causing flight and base delays, and closures in parks and museums. A dangerous mix of snow, ice and sleet was expected, so MCB Camp Lejeune prepared for the worse by opening four hours later than usual on Jan. 11. What was expected to be a dangerous time turned out to be a quite warm, precipitation-free morning, but the evidence of the base’s preparations were evident with caution signs and cones.

Then in February, the base closed again to all nonessential personnel, due to snowy weather conditions. Shortly afterward, a fire broke out in the Greater Sandy Run area.

“The fire (burned) more than 10,000 acres and even jumped over (Highway-17),” said Lecce. During a press conference March 19, Lecce commented “as Marines, we are good in combat, but not so good with fires of this magnitude,” as the North Carolina Forestry Service took command of the fire.

 While the blaze originated March 18, it took more than two weeks of fire fighting and favorable weather conditions to be completely contained. It was the efforts of more than 75 North Carolina Forest Service firefighter and fire managers, 20 MCB Camp Lejeune fire and emergency personnel and the Onslow County Emergency Operations Center, the wildfire was largely contained. Their hard work finally paid off when it was determined that there was no private property or residential damage as a result of the fire.

“Then we had the tornado,” said Lecce.

For some, the mere mention of last spring’s tornado still has a chilling effect.

Meteorologists predicted thunderstorms just days before April 16, but no one expected a tornado to hit so close to home when it touched down in Tarawa Terrace, one of MCB Camp Lejeune’s base housing areas. It took many residents by surprise as it cut diagonally across the housing area, demolishing everything in its path.

The tornado came down, hopped randomly across to other houses before jumping the gate and terrorizing Jacksonville residents. There was heavy damage and many injuries reported for the area, to include a 23 month-old toddler in base housing who was medically evacuated to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C., and people from the community stepped up to the plate.

“It’s like the Marine ethos, whatever it is, it’s this courage that makes them go in without really thinking about it,” said Lecce, referring to the story of two service members who helped save the life of the toddler who was ripped from his mother’s arms during the tornado. “The roof of the house was severed off and the child was underneath (it). Those men lifted the roof up and pulled that child out. They saved that child’s life without question.”

More than 10 Tarawa Terrace homes were completely destroyed and nearly 60 houses sustained significant structural damage. Within a day, emergency teams had cleared roads of downed power lines, and Marine working parties worked side by side with civilian volunteers to help pick up rubble and debris that littered the area.

“We went out to the Piney Green Emergency Operation Center, and there were hundreds of Marines helping in that community, also,” said Lecce.

Atlantic Marine Corps Community staff were available in the Tarawa Terrace area to help process claims and offer any support needed. Base officials used social media websites to help get the word out about what residents needed to do to process claims, where they could find claims counseling, financial assistance and general legal assistance.

On June 19, another small wildfire developed into one of the largest fires North Carolina would face in 2011. The fire, which officials determined had been started by a lightning strike, grew from a small blaze to burning more than 4,800 acres in a matter of days.

Within a week, the fire consumed more than 31,000 acres, and the residual smoke prompted health concerns. The base and surrounding areas were in low-quality air conditions for weeks afterward and visibility was reduced for motorists.

“The fire was tremendously dangerous, because it was so big, so intense and moving so quickly,” said Lecce. “Our wild land firefighters were literally right in the middle of that fire and I think they did a tremendous job.”

By Aug. 1, the fire was still smoldering and 92 percent contained.

As the month progressed, base personnel braced themselves for another round of Mother Nature’s wrath – Hurricane Irene. In the weeks before it hit, base officials met to discuss shelters, evacuation plans and resources. Marines who live in bachelor enlisted quarters filled sand bags for days and laid them out in front of the first floor doors in order to prevent water damage.

“There’s not much to do once it’s here, but before, that’s where you make your money, and I think we really did that,” said Lecce. “We took some hits, but no injuries and no deaths, so I think we fared very well.”

Many areas lost power, and structural siding, while loose garbage cans and debris created dangerous road conditions, but the Jacksonville community emergency services were out most of the following morning clearing the areas, and base emergency services closely monitored the roads aboard MCB Camp Lejeune to prevent any dangerous incidents.

“The best you can do is exercise it, but we went beyond that because we’ve actually applied it in real-world situations,” said Lecce, referring to disaster preparation. “We have a very robust relationship with Onslow County and the city of Jacksonville and their emergency responders. We enjoy their support in every aspect. We have this reciprocal help agreement that allows us to exchange both equipment and personnel, but the first responders in the field through all of these (disasters) did a remarkable job.  They went in to harm’s way and they risked their lives doing very dangerous things.”

Lecce added that the most challenging incident of 2011 was dealing with the tornado because it created havoc in the housing area.

“Many of the families had someone deployed. They were all young families, and now their homes were completely destroyed, so they needed a lot of help,” said Lecce. “But the community really pulled together, and the USO (of North Carolina-Jacksonville), the Navy Marine Corps Relief Society, the Officer’s Wives Club and the Staff Noncommissioned Officer’s Wives Club were all integral to that. In two weeks, we were almost completely back to normal.”

Despite the numerous weather anomalies that impacted MCB Camp Lejeune, Col. Lecce doesn’t feel 2011 will be remembered for them, exclusively.

“I think what people will remember is how we as a community both Marine, civilian, on base and off base, rose to the occasion – in each one of those – and came back stronger and better. It’s really great to see. It’s our perseverance through such difficult times.”

One of the topics Lecce is most proud of is the way the community has come together, not only through the disasters, but also through this austere fiscal time including the civilian hiring freeze.

“Most civilian employees will do more than one because they have to cover down for a position that has been left vacant. If you were to come on base, there would be no real discernible difference,” said Lecce. “I think it is a huge tribute to this base and (its) employees. They do tremendous work and that is what I am most proud of.”

Looking ahead to 2012, Lecce has high hopes for the completion of many construction projects aboard the base and despite the changes that will come with the cutbacks, he has no doubt that the base will continue to accomplish the mission and support the warfighter.

“Since its inception, there’s never been construction of this magnitude on base, but we’ve been able to manage that,” said Lecce. “Yes, there’s inconvenience, but we’ve been able to manage a lot of construction really well. Now we have new (child development centers) and a lot of new ranges online. The base is really coming up, and I think once we get that new gate and new entry road, a lot of the traffic we experience now at the main gate will be alleviated.”

For now though, Lecce looks forward to a quiet holiday season.

“I’m going to try and get through the new year without any disasters,” said Lecce. “I think the higher being gives you what you can handle, and clearly, he felt that I could handle multiple natural or man-made disasters, and he picked the right guy.”