PANAMA CITY, FL (NNS) -- The public works officer assigned to Naval Support Activity Panama City was honored by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) as the Navy’s 2020 Military Engineer of the Year during an awards presentation held at the Washington Navy Yard, Feb. 14.
“(I’m) extremely pleased at the selection of Lt. Cmdr. Christopher J. McDowell from our Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southeast as our Military Engineer of the Year,” said Rear Adm. John W. Korka, commander, NAVFAC and Chief of Civil Engineers.
In addition to being named as the Navy’s top military engineer, McDowell was a top ten finalist at the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Federal Engineer of the Year Awards also held in Washington, D.C.
Lt. Cmdr. McDowell is the public works officer for Naval Support Activity Panama City and leads a team of 72 employees with an annual budget of around $35 million in construction and $41 million in maintenance support to the base, tenant commands and their missions.
“We are truly fortunate to have such an extraordinary engineer serving our Navy and providing outstanding support to the Navy and Marine Corps team with selfless dedication,” Korka said.
Admiral Korka added, “Lt. Cmdr. McDowell is an exceptional member of our NAVFAC professional community who has successfully led engineering teams through a variety projects and events ranging from support of the Columbia-class submarine program to disaster recovery.”
McDowell was called to Philadelphia to resolve an issue with the Navy’s Foundry and Propeller Center located in the old Navy yard. The center is responsible for manufacturing the propellers for use with the new Columbia-Class submarine, but according to McDowell several issues needed to be resolved first -- mainly capacity. His job was to establish a plan to enlarge the 100-year-old foundry, upgrade the power grid and enable the support for 15 different types of industrial gases, so production would be online in two years. “I had five months to develop hundreds of projects and then combine them into a major construction project,” said McDowell.
When a devastating category 5 hurricane struck Bay County, Fla., and the surrounding area Oct. 10, 2018, McDowell’s main mission was disaster recovery. Hurricane Michael’s sustained winds of 161 mph, pummeled the area and was responsible for destroying or damaging 200 of the 368 facilities at NSA Panama City. Damages were estimated around $186 million.
The base commander at the time, Cmdr. Jay Sego, told McDowell to get the base up and running as quickly as possible. “The day after Michael, we had a team on the ground assessing damage,” said McDowell. “Our first priority was to establish the perimeter was intact, and focus on facilities and infrastructure.”
While Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) -11 traveled from Gulfport, MS with heavy equipment to clear debris and downed trees, contractors went to work repairing roofs, removing damaged drywall, carpets and drying out office spaces so employees could return to a safe environment.
Although faced with difficulties every step of the way during the recovery efforts, one easy win was power. Power restoration was quick due to the fact the base was already into a multi-year power grid upgrade noted McDowell. “Within one day, Gulf Power replaced 12-14 downed poles and tied (us) back in. We were actually ready to receive power to the base before the city was ready to send it to us,” he added.
Water was another story. According to McDowell they were tracking thousands of breaks along the line caused by uprooted trees. “Fortunately, we were able to get plumbing crews onboard within the first week.”
By the end of October, contractors had replaced damaged pipes and major water valves throughout the base. Although 100 percent integrity had not been reached, if another issue arose with the water system, the problem could be quickly isolated and repairs made with minimal effect to users.
In addition to restoring the base to mission capability, McDowell and every member of the public works team had to contend with the stress of their own damaged or destroyed homes, and displaced families.
“A third of our employees lost their entire homes and most of their belongings, including my deputy,” stated McDowell. “Another third had minor to moderate damage and the remainder were untouched.”
Despite the aggressive schedule, McDowell and his deputy were able to adjust schedules for employees to take time to deal with their own destruction and recovery. Their hard work and dedication, McDowell stated, was paramount in the installation’s ability to come back online three weeks after the hurricane.
Of the $180 million in repair costs, McDowell stated his office has about $80 million funded and under contract. To complete all repairs “we are probably another one to two years out,” he added.
Currently, McDowell said the biggest challenge he has is the availability of contractors to do the work. “It’s very difficult to get qualified contractors to work on a military installation right now,” he said.
McDowell has never been one to seek attention or seek awards for his work. His employees always come first. “I am honored to be nominated and selected as the Navy’s Military Engineer of the Year,” said McDowell. “I see this award as recognition of the hard work my department has put in over the last year. I am thankful to have a team of dedicated military officers and government service civilians that time after time provide solutions to the Navy’s complex facility and infrastructure requirements.”
McDowell has advice for other civil engineers. “Never turn down an opportunity to lead a team or project,” said McDowell. “You have to do more than the day-to-day work. You have to get out of your comfort area to succeed.” He added, “Opportunities are always there and when they come up, take it!”
“Part of your professional development should be focused on developing good leadership and communication skills,” McDowell suggested. “Strong leadership and communication skills are what enables the technical expertise of an engineer to solve the most complicated problems.”
For more news from Naval Support Activity Panama City, visit www.navy.mil/local/nsapc/.