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employees who are hired for specific projects. In that capacity, he was tapped to be lead project manager for the Environmental Impact Statement and the Corps’ Clean Water Act wetland permit review of the PolyMet NorthMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. Spading says he was glad to be sent to Texas, where his skills could help people. He recalled one person who invited his team over to chat. Without sewer and water service, the family was using an outdoor portable toilet and sterilizing water on the stove because buying bottled water had become too expensive.

Jay Axness: Addressing a different sense of urgency When hurricanes hit Texas, our oil supply is affected. The Gulf Coast is the center of the U.S. refining industry and nearly a dozen refineries were forced to halt operations in Corpus Christi, Houston, and Port Arthur/ Beaumont. The closures took out 20 percent of the U.S. refinery capacity. University of Minnesota alumnus Jay Axness (Mechanical Engineering ’08) helped get gasoline flowing again. Axness was a section supervisor overseeing 20 engineers at ExxonMobil’s Baytown Area facilities just east of Houston, one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Baytown Refinery itself processes 580,000 barrels of crude oil daily

Photo by Patrick Loch/U.S. Army corps of Engineers

“This guy was trying to dry out family photos on his dining room table, and scraps of memorabilia he’d saved from the flood,” said Spading. “Meanwhile the place where he worked had been under five feet of water. So, he was also looking for a new job.”

Restoring infrastructure helps rebuild lives. “I really, really adore that kind of work,” he said.

Kenton Spading (second from left) and colleagues from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2009 observe work on a levee surrounding St. Bernard Parish, Louisana.

and several chemical and plastic plants nearby produce other products, ranging from butyl used in car tires to polyethylene found in shrink wrap. For safety, almost everything had to be shut down when the storm hit. “You can’t just flip a switch,” Axness said. “It takes a long time to shut down and even longer to start up. It’s not like an assembly line where you can turn the conveyor belt off and then back on again.” While a small crew worked and slept on air mattresses at the refinery during the storm, Axness worked from home, keeping tabs on the engineers who reported to him. Amazingly, none suffered major flooding, even though many buildings in Houston stood in more than four feet of water. The city’s drainage system was overwhelmed by the deluge and many streets became a secondary drainage system, making travel impossible. By the time Axness returned to the refinery, the flood had receded. The first priority was to repair the refinery’s docks and clear debris from the Houston Shipping Channel so gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel could be brought in by tankers from facilities not affected by the hurricane. Panicked consumers were stockpiling fuel and prices had gone up. “People were going to gas stations and filling up their vehicle and then filling several five-gallon containers,” he said. “They were doing gas runs, like a run on a bank. People were creating a gas shortage where we may not have otherwise had one.”

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Inventing Tomorrow Fall 2018  

In this water-themed issue, students and faculty at the College of Science and Engineering use the latest research techniques to study water...

Inventing Tomorrow Fall 2018  

In this water-themed issue, students and faculty at the College of Science and Engineering use the latest research techniques to study water...