VICKSBURG, Miss.-- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Vicksburg District’s Plant Section is the logistical muscle behind numerous district operations, but few see its true reach.
Headed by Plant Section Chief Paul Richards, the 20-person team is the logistical backbone of the district’s Navigation Branch. Team members support not only district headquarters in Vicksburg, but the Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC) and other districts as needed.
The team operates primarily from the district’s Harbor facility found along an arch in the Yazoo River, an area rife with oil refineries and trucking company outposts. This strategic placement provides easy access to the district’s vessel fleet via a steep boat ramp. Critical assets like the Motor Vessel Benyaurd recently received alarm system upgrades through Programmable Logical Controllers (PLCs) installations, which ensure the vessel’s bridge receives electronic alerts from the lower deck, as opposed to the earlier flashing button system. The Plant Section also propels the district into the future, handling upgrades such as carpentry and weather-proofing older vessel interiors as needed.
The work itself calls for a reliable team with unique skillsets. A typical day for the Plant Section crew could involve carpentry, cutting grass, electrical work, painting, supply delivery, logistical support or a host of various technical activities.
Alton “Al” Sims manages Subsistence, or the Plant Section’s logistic arm that ensures the district’s vessels receive food and supplies. He places food orders and oversees shipments, which are loaded onto several refrigerated trucks that meet vessels as far north as Cairo, Illinois, or as far south as New Orleans, Louisiana. The vessels’ constant movement, especially during prolonged work periods for low water events, poses an additional challenge.
Richards explained that most of the team has worked on the Mat Sinking Unit (MSU), the Dredge Jadwin, or other vessels at some point. As such, each member brings a specific area of expertise, but their abilities to switch between technical skills as needed makes them incredibly valuable. The team also receives additional members when current vessel employees complete their duties after the annual dredging and revetment seasons.
“A lot of these employees come to the Plant Section as needed when the district finishes the dredging season,” Richards said. “We’re kind of a catch-all for whatever needs to be done, no matter what your title is. We get everything done.”
Plant and Facilities Manager Ronnie Mackey, Richards’ second in command, is a prime example of this multiple trade mastery phenomenon. Mackey joined the district as an inspector on the Bank Grading Unit and then worked his way up on the MSU, where he became the first Black shift inspector in 1994. He’s enjoyed meeting a variety of challenges throughout his career, including deploying to Afghanistan with the Mississippi National Guard during the Gulf War. Most recently, Mackey has overseen large scale efforts to update the Harbor’s training facility and outfit it with new office space. He attributes the Plant Section’s success to the team’s sense of camaraderie.
“We have a great group of guys out here,” Mackey said.
In addition to daily duties, the Plant Section team undertakes a variety of efforts that crop up around the district and beyond. Examples of recent ad hoc projects include repairing and installing a new pump at the Mississippi River Basin model in downtown Vicksburg, hanging industrial-sized banners and flags for the district’s 150th anniversary observance and building the district’s annual Mardi Gras float. The Plant Section assists with emergency operations, such as maintaining the Deployable Tactical Operations System (DTOS) vehicle used for urgent response and loading sandbags for use by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) ahead of Hurricane Ida in 2021.
The USACE Vicksburg District is engineering solutions to the nation’s toughest challenges. The Vicksburg District encompasses a 68,000-square-mile area across portions of Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, that holds nine major river basins and incorporates approximately 460 miles of mainline Mississippi River levees. The Vicksburg District is engaged in hundreds of projects and employs approximately 1,100 personnel.