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Robert Wagoner:‘It takes a village, constant effort, and focus to achieve success.’

By Hilary Reeves

Five days after Hurricane Maria savaged her way through the Caribbean last September, Foss Maritime Director of Cargo Operations Rob Wagoner was on the ground on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas.

“The initial involvement of Foss in the Hurricane Maria recovery efforts was to provide accommodation vessels to the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] in St. Thomas,” said Wagoner.

Foss tug pulls a hotel barge.
After the hurricane, Foss chartered a flat deck barge, quickly turning it in to a self-sustained hotel unit for FEMA and DOD relief personnel. The barge had it’s own power generator, desalination plant for drinking water, sewage treatment facility, galley and mess hall. Each of the bunk-house trailers could sleep 8-16 people.

Foss chartered two marine housing units each providing approximately 300 bunks for FEMA contractors undertaking various relief services on the island. After three weeks, the units were shifted to Mayaguez, Puerto Rico to assist in a FEMA meal program. At the same time, the accommodation Barge JMC3330 arrived in Ponce, Puerto Rico to provide approximately 400 bunks for FEMA and U.S. Department of Defense [DOD] relief workers.

Wagoner, the Puerto Rico Island Manager for Foss responsible for all three vessels, has worked in the marine transportation business for more than 33 years managing a variety of project cargo deliveries around the world, numerous DOD deployments and National Guard Unit moves, and the delivery of humanitarian food aid for various agencies to the Caribbean, South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

“I love travel and the challenge of logistics,” he said. “Making all the ends meet to complete a project, or ‘cradle to grave’ logistic, is very satisfying.”

Corbin Foss tandem tows two barges of utility vehicles.
The Corbin Foss with two fully loaded barges of utility vehicles, just before they were released for tandem tow back to the states.

In January of 2018, almost four months after the storm, Foss was again called upon to mobilize equipment to Puerto Rico. Some 20 utility companies from around the country sent equipment into Puerto Rico, alongside barges of bottled water. The companies belong to a trade association named the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). The Institute was working for PREPA with FEMA-funded monies to restore power.

“My team and I were responsible for coordinating the EEI equipment port arrival and barge stowage of six barges from two U.S. ports,” said Wagoner. “We were also managing the barge loading and dispatch in Ponce, and later de-mobbed the EEI equipment back to U.S. East and Gulf coasts. We had zero personnel injuries and zero damage to utility equipment.”

Wagoner (left) with partners pose for the camera, all wear hard hats and reflective gear.
Wagoner (left) with project partners from PG&E, along with three Foss team members David Chestnut, Ryan Wegner and David Roy on location in Ponce, PR.

While Wagoner, Jim Daley, Director of Operations for Ocean Vessels and Operational Lead, and the rest of the team – including Port Captain Henry Palmer and Port Engineer Dave Atkins – were key on the ground, Foss Vice President of Business Development and Contract Services John Tirpak lent considerable knowledge to the commercial aspect of the project, deftly guiding Foss through the murky waters of contract relief.

Tirpak joined Saltchuk in 2003, first in the nation’s capital procuring government contracting support for the company, later moving to Seattle as the president of Foss-owned American Cargo Transport Co. (ACTC), acquired in 2007.

“ACTC did mostly DOD and USAID [U.S. Agency of International Development] work internationally,” he said. “Most of the company’s activities are concentrated the Middle East, Pacific Rim, and Caribbean.”

A team gathers in reflective vests and hard hats in front of a barge gangway.
Foss and its stevedoring team in Ponce, PR gather for a safety moment before beginning the job of back-loading two barges of utility vehicles for transit back to the states.

Prior to Saltchuk, Tirpak worked in international transportation in Europe, South America, Australia, and Africa, which led for foreign postings in both Brazil and Africa, and extensive foreign travel.

“I’ve been to more than 100 countries throughout my career and personal travels,” he said. “The uniqueness of supporting the DOD in areas of conflict, and USAIR in third-world nations is worthwhile and inspiring.”

Tirpak’s involvement in Foss’ maritime disaster relief began during Hurricane Harvey a month before Irma and Maria.

“We were proving our capacity to support the Maritime Administration of the Department of Transportation, U.S. Transportation Command, the Defense Logistics Agency, FEMA, and Military Sealift Command,” he said. “This carried forward to Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Foss had a track record and, as I’ve worked in the government space, I had the ability to reach out to the decision makers. Much support in securing the work was done with a team at Foss, including Mike Lauer, Leiv Lea, Pete Roney, Rob Wagoner, Jim Daley, and many more from the Legal and Finance teams. It was a real team effort throughout the whole process, as much was done over the holidays.”

In 2010, Foss supported earthquake victims in Haiti through government contracts.

“In Haiti, we moved 80,000 short tons of emergency food aid, many barge loads of military support equipment, did salvage work in the PAP harbor, and reestablished port infrastructure with Foss-leased barges and cranes [with Wagoner as the on-site project manager],” Tirpak said. “Our work during the Hurricane Sandy effort on the East Coast was recognized by the Defense Logistics Agency.

“The diversity of services offered by Foss isn’t widely known throughout the marketplace, and the reach we have through supplier networks is vast. Foss performs many unique and complex logistical problems that have worldwide impact.”

Currently, there is no active scope of work in Puerto Rico for Foss. FEMA continues its restoration efforts, and FOSS is a vetted contractor for FEMA, DOD and DLA and stands ready to assist in many capacities. According to Wagoner, the island’s recovery, and the recovery of damaged islands through the Caribbean, is a testament to the human spirit.

“I remember how dedicated and resilient the employees of Tropical Shipping in St. Thomas and TOTE in San Juan were in performing their jobs everyday under tough circumstances,” he said. “Nisha Aubain and Eduardo Pagan deserve a lot of credit for taking care of their staff and maintaining a reliable service.”

Both Wagoner and Tirpak agree that both the humanitarian and business aspects of disaster recovery have become more cohesive since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“It’s never easy to achieve complete harmony between all stakeholders in an emergency situation, but I give FEMA credit for prepositioning resources and personnel in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico prior to the hurricane,” Wagoner concluded. “I think the ‘lesson’s learned’ since Katrina has paid dividends. The government is far more proactive in event preparation than ever before. It was amazing to see all the various governmental agencies under one roof in San Juan, and in strategic regional areas like Ponce coordinating efforts and resources. It takes a village, constant effort, and focus to achieve success.”