When tragedy hits, the Army Corps of Engineers has boots on the ground.
Kevin Wagner lost everything. Once the levees overflowed during Hurricane Katrina, water poured into his Chalmette home in lower Saint Bernard Parish, eventually climbing two to four inches above the eaves. Levels rose to six inches above the cabinets in his mother-in-law’s second-floor kitchen. His mother’s house did not fare any better.
“My mother, this is the first time she didn’t pack up family photos,” Wagner said with a Louisiana drawl. Instead, she stashed them in the attic thinking they’d be fine, but this was a gargantuan storm, made more dangerous by failing floodwalls and overwhelmed levees. “They lost all of the family photos,” Wagner said.
And much more.
As a senior project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers (US-ACE), Wagner knew what was coming next: recovery. All of Saint Bernard Parish and 80 percent of New Orleans were flooded. When the immediate threat of Hurricane Katrina subsided, he joined a team that drained his own parish of the millions of gallons of water left by the storm and levee breeches.
A catastrophic event by any measure, Hurricane Katrina provided one silver lining: With careful planning and hard, cold assessments of what went wrong, the Corps has since put better processes into place. These advances made big differences in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast last August, and Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast two months later.
USA Today U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Special Edition
Call for Help
In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused major flooding in New York and New Jersey, filling the metro area with 470 million gallons of water. This massive flooding required “unwatering,” the process of removing misplaced water, and Wagner and Al Lee, who commanded the New Orleans District during Katrina and now serves as regional business director for the Mississippi Valley Division, were among those who headed to New York to assist as part of an unwatering team.
A key component of the mission was to support local efforts with the clean up.
“This wasn’t about the Corps of Engineers riding in and taking care of things,” Lee said. “We did assessments. Then we would make a joint decision on whether locals would continue to work by themselves or we would help them.”
State and local governments decide how or even if the Corps in involved in recovery missions. ACE can offer technical support and provide staff for locally driven missions. Nearly 4,000 ACE employees supported recovery efforts after Hurricane Sandy.
Of course standing water is not the only problem after a huge storm. Debris created by high winds and storm surges is another big concern, and getting rid of the debris is a major effort of the Corps.
After Katrina, the Corps initiated ADMS, an Automated Debris Management System. “We basically are able to track debris from point-of-pick-up to final destination,” said Col John Pilot, recovery field office commander of the South Atlantic Division. With ADMS, “you can pull up a web portal and see where everybody is working and where the debris ends up,” Pilot said. “That was a big change [from Hurricane Katrina]. Before [we used] paper tickets.”
Not only does the automated system allow for greater efficiencies, it also cuts down on fraud.
Another improvement in the removal of debris came in the methods used by the Corps.
“We did this in a very environmentally sound manner,” Pilot said. “We were tasked by the New York City EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] chief. She challenged us to work in the most environmentally sensitive, greenest ways we could.”
The teams sifted misplaced sand for reuse elsewhere and shredded vegetation debris for composting.
Ready and Willing
With more robust teams and ready-to-roll contracts with local contractors—including those for water and ice distribution, debris removal and installing temporary roofing—ACE was able to get boots on the ground more quickly in Sandy-affected areas.
“You can’t build relationships after a hurricane hits,” Lee said. “That’s a key, key thing.” Knowing that teams could depend on proven contractors and were infused with locals made a big difference, he said. “Really, it’s a combined effort. Everyone pulls together.”
Wagner remembered that even during the darkest days of Katrina’s aftermath, a can-do spirit infused the efforts.
“I saw people step up to the plate, even though they had lost everything,” he remembered. “That was one of the primary reasons that I volunteered to go to New York. You really see the goodness of all the people [when you do disaster work].”