U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS – BEING READY AND RESPONSIVE
BY CRAIG COLLINS, AMERICA'S ENGINEERS
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) sprang into action in September 2022 to help the city of Jackson, Mississippi navigate both the short-term response to the failure of its municipal water supply as well as its long-term recovery – to restore clean drinking water as quickly as possible, and to ensure lifelong resilience and durability for Jackson’s water treatment system – its involvement was automatic: Under the National Response Framework (NRF), which establishes guidelines for domestic emergency response, USACE is the lead agency for Emergency Support Function (ESF) #3: Public Works and Engineering, which includes contracting for the emergency repair of water and wastewater treatment facilities.
The agency carried out this function, but it also did much more: It assessed the existing infrastructure in Jackson, led the development of a detailed playbook for avoiding another crisis by strengthening and protecting Jackson’s future water supply, and assumed long-term leadership of the whole-of-government effort to implement that playbook. It was a crisis unlike any USACE had confronted in its centurylong involvement in domestic emergency response – but it was also something USACE, with its expertise in water infrastructure, was most capable of doing: staffed, programmed, trained, and positioned to deliver relief in the moment, and to help build resilience and capacity for the future.
The story of how USACE meets the critical demand for its services today, in a way that goes far beyond the 1988 law that outlined its roles in the NRF, is the story of how it became more than just responsive to those demands. It is also, more so every year, ready and able to anticipate those demands, and to help instill that readiness – and resilience –among the communities it serves.
Built for Response
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was an agency born of urgent need: For the Continental Army, Chief Engineer Col. Richard Gridley and his engineers built the earthworks and trenches that held off British forces at Bunker Hill (until the patriots ran out of gunpowder), and helped repel the attack at Dorchester Heights, expelling the British from Massachusetts forever.
As the nation’s military role expanded, the Corps of Engineers evolved to become an expeditionary force, assuming leader- ship roles in contingency operations. “The definition of contingency,” said USACE Director of Military Programs Christine Altendorf, “is something that comes up that wasn’t planned. And when those things happen, we’re able to draw on the strengths that come from the civil works side of our house, from military programs, and from research and development.”
Throughout the Global War on Terrorism, Altendorf said, literally thousands of USACE civilians were deployed to design and build the infrastructure needed to sustain the allied presence overseas – and to help rebuild nations devastated by war. In 2004, Altendorf visited Iraq to help lead the work of Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil, which helped to repair the country’s oil infrastructure to a point where it could begin to rebuild its economy. In Afghanistan, USACE personnel managed the $14 billion effort to build police stations around the country.
USACE’s skill set enables it to meet the urgent needs of international partners, including its NATO allies. USACE currently manages the effort to augment facilities and infrastructure in Poland and other nations to bolster the readiness of NATO’s Eastern European allies. As the conflict in Ukraine has unfolded, USACE experts are helping allies to accommodate both an influx in supporting troops, and the more than 5 million Ukrainians who have fled the war to seek shelter in Europe.
This program of overseas support to the combatant commands and allies is coordinated and executed largely through USACE’s Field Force Engineering (FFE) program, which deploys small expeditionary teams of military and civilian specialists. The largest of the six FFE teams is the Forward Engineer Support Team-Main (FEST-M), which averages about 36 to 38 Soldiers and civilians with expertise in electrical, mechanical, civil, and environmental engineering, as well as in logistics, contracting, and resource management.
Other FFE components include:
• Forward Engineer Support TeamsAdvance (FEST-A): FEST-A teams provide engineering planning/design support and limited infrastructure assessment.
• The Contingency Real Estate Support Teams (CRESTs): Assist in the acquisition, management, and disposal of real estate on behalf of the federal government during contingencies.
• Environmental Support Team (EnvST): An expeditionary team of specialists who support the combatant commands during war, contingency operations, and disaster relief.
• Logistics Support Team: Specialists who support the reception of de ploying USACE personnel, including transportation and lodging, and the supply of USACE operations.
• Base-camp Development Teams (BDTs): These specialists are not deployed, but serve as a resource for planning, designing, and building facilities such as forward operating bases, displaced personnel camps, and staging bases. They also provide technical support for contingency operations, disaster response, training, and exercises.
BDT and other stateside support for these operations are provided through the USACE Reachback Operations Center (UROC) at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC). UROC enables the real-time sharing of USACE expertise to support deployed forces – or any forces requiring specialized assistance.
Beyond “Response”: Managing the Life Cycle of Risk
USACE’s emergency management program was grown from its original mandate to respond with skill and agility to emergent challenges. The Corps of Engineers’ first official disaster relief mission was conducted in 1882, when it supported the Army’s efforts to rescue people and property during massive floods throughout much of the lower Mississippi Valley. Over the decades, USACE’s response mission expanded from flood-fighting to other hazards, but it wasn’t until the 1980s, when the NRF began to take shape, that USACE established a formal emergency management program.
Under the NRF, a series of scripted actions is set into motion once a disaster is declared – or, in the case of “notice” events such as an approaching storm, in anticipation of an imminent disaster. The NRF spells out 15 different ESFs to be carried out in a federal disaster response. In addition to its leadership authority for ESF #3, Public Works and Engineering, USACE is a supporting agency for several others – for example, if FEMA activates ESF #9, Urban Search and Rescue, for an incident, USACE lends personnel to the operation.
PRTs are often deployed in support of FFE responses to overseas contingencies, and USACE shares their expertise with international and regional partners, engaging in bilateral technical consultations with nations such as Japan, Mexico, and China. Since 1996, the Corps of Engineers has helped partner nations in Europe and Central Asia develop emergency management skills through the Civil Military Emergency Preparation (CMEP) program. CMEP supports U.S. national security strategies while encouraging peace and cooperation among allies.
USACE’s emergency management expertise is gathered into more than 30 Planning and Response Teams (PRTs), formed at the district level and composed of civilian employee volunteers trained and credentialed for their team’s particular function. PRTs are the backbone of USACE’s domestic emergency response: providing water and key commodities; assessing the soundness of infrastructure for emergency access; providing temporary roofing, housing, or critical facilities; assisting with search-and-rescue operations; removing debris or mitigating floodwaters; and providing – with the help of experts from USACE’s 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) help of experts from USACE’s 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) – emergency power to critical facilities.
The early 21st century is a critical time in the evolution of USACE’s emergency management efforts – whose paradigm has already evolved long past the concept of “response.” USACE and its partners long ago began expanding their focus beyond what they must do under the National Response Framework – which “switches on” after a disaster has struck –to what they can do, not only to make sure a response works efficiently, but also to prevent as much harm and loss as possible while enabling more resilient communities and infrastructure.
“We call it the life cycle of risk management for all hazards,” said Stephen Hill, USACE’s director of contingency operations and chief, Office of Homeland Security. “There’s the preparation piece we’re doing during blue sky” – the emergency management community’s term for the downtime between disasters – “and the emergency response piece – and that’s followed up by recovery operations, which begins by looking at integrating more resilience: How do we take actions that will ensure we don’t have the same level of damage in the future? That mitigation piece is something FEMA is increasingly working to implement.”
This shift in emphasis is due in part to changes in circumstances. “Water resiliency,” for example, is a relatively new area of emphasis for USACE. In July 2022, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Michael L. Connor directed USACE to use its authorities and capabilities to address the drought crisis, particularly in the American West, where several communities have resorted to trucking in water supplies. USACE, said Hill, is authorized to transport emergency supplies of clean drinking water to any drought-distressed area – but the notion of “responding” to drought suggests an opportunity already missed: USACE will adapt how it operates existing water infrastructure; how it manages navigation, hydropower, recreation, and storage projects; and continue to develop data and modeling tools to support drought resilience.
According to Hill, USACE has also been responsive to the growing number and intensity of wildfires in the West – many of which are followed by soil erosion and the spread of invasive plants in burn zones. Federal law gives USACE the authority to provide technical assistance for preparedness, response, and recovery, and over the last 10 years, USACE has supported 17 post-wildfire watershed stabilization events in seven western states. After wildfires raged through nearly 900,000 acres of New Mexico over the first half of 2022, the Corps of Engineers helped lead the effort to protect community water supplies by either diverting or impeding runoff, often by placing boulders, riprap, or gabion baskets on sloped terrain.
“Living in a Different Age”
USACE has not had to develop a new set of skills to manage the risks associated with wildfires. What’s new, said Hill, is the scope, intensity, and frequency of climate-influenced disasters such as wildfires, drought, and hurricanes. “The FEMA administrator talks about us living in a different age,” he said. “And we say that every decade – but I see more people who believe that now than ever before.”
In mid-September, Hill visited Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona had knocked out power to all 1.5 million customers, throughout the entire island. A couple of weeks later, while Fiona was forcing port closures in eastern Canada, 1,900 miles to the north, USACE was helping coordinate a response to Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in southwest Florida on Sept. 28, 2022, as a Category 4 hurricane.
The response to Ian was huge, demanding the deployment of 351 USACE personnel, who were themselves given virtual support by 161 others at the Corps of Engineers, and who oversaw the work of 2,469 contractors. The teams completed 9,913 infrastructure assessments and 260 power assessments, and contracted for the installation of 20,125 temporary roofs.
Given the pace and scale of such operations, said Hill, it’s reasonable to think that the way USACE achieves its emergency management mission will have to change. “There’s a lot of pressure to be more efficient,” he said. All-volunteer PRTs, leaving their day jobs for extended deployments – sometimes multiple deployments, in sequence – may not be the answer much longer. “That worked 15, 20 years ago, before Katrina,” said Hill. “Now the queue is so significant that the ability to pull volunteers is increasingly difficult.”
It’s an issue that’s being discussed among Hill and other USACE leaders, and, as yet, there’s no definitive answer about how future PRTs will be configured. “Maybe a bigger core cadre of full-time experts, with a reserve team that comes in, can better address what seems to be a persistent level of response and recovery efforts.”
It’s not that Hill thinks USACE and its partners in emergency management need to work faster, he said. “I think it’s about gaining levels of efficiency through innovation – simple things, like using our data more broadly. Traditionally, the Corps of Engineers pulls together three or four experts on a topic, and they make decisions and move forward.”
It’s impossible, Hill said, for these four people, brilliant as they may be, to digest and analyze all the data available to USACE. For now, he said, the Army’s unclassified common operating picture (UCOP) is comprised of data that sits on different platforms, and is written and stored in different formats. But in recent years, the Army Geospatial Center (AGC) and other USACE research and development components have helped with precisely the kind of innovation Hill is looking for: During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, AGC used the best predictive models available and turned them into “heat maps” that gave FEMA and federal partners and idea of where USACE would most likely be building alter native care structures to build capacity for overwhelmed medical facilities. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the 20,125 temporary roofs in southwest Florida were coordinated through an automated system using GIS and other data – rights of entry, requests for support, work orders, structural assessments, bills of materials – to push contractors out into the communities and provide shelter to storm survivors.
“All of this can happen very efficiently,” said David Hibner, director of the AGC, “and we save an enormous amount of time and money – but the most important thing, I think, in these tough times when American citizens need us the most, is that we’re helping restore some level of normalcy faster by using these automated dashboards and other systems through our UCOP.”
"Our program is slated to spend somewhere between $80 [billion] and $100 billion over the next five years to incorporate resiliency," Hill said. "That's focused on sea level rise and climate change, while also applying what we've learned about drought – or the need for water resiliency, which is a better term for what we do. And it's also going to take a look at environmental justice and the needs of disadvantaged communities. It's what the Corps does: We're learning to look and see what challenges lie ahead."