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Army Corps of Engineers on the Frontline of Domestic Contingency Operations

For the U.S. military, “contingency operations” traditionally refer to overseas engagements by one or more uniformed services, typically involving some level of combat. A major exception to that is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) can be deployed within the United States on domestic contingency operations, usually in response to a natural or man-made disaster. But how USACE responds nationally is an evolving process.

According to Karen Durham-Aguilera, USACE director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security, “When we refer to ‘all hazards contingency response,’ it truly means all hazards – tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, man-made events. That is a change from how we used to do things. We evolved into that because the skills needed for overseas contingency ops are the same skills you need to respond domestically.

“So many of our folks, who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, are the same ones who spent time in New Orleans after Katrina and have responded to other domestic events, such as Hurricane Isaac [late August 2012]. A few years ago, all those would have been addressed separately.”

That dual role is possible because of the nature of USACE’s missions, both domestically and outside the continental United States, that largely fall into the category of public works engineering. USACE missions include iconic dam building in the United States, school and medical clinic construction overseas, and providing infrastructure and prime power for Army facilities at home and abroad.

The 17th Street Outfall Canal Interim Control Structure in operation in New Orleans, La., on Aug. 30, 2012, following Hurricane Isaac. Once the Lake Pontchartrain water level triggers were reached, USACE closed the structure’s gates to prevent surge from entering the outfall canal. Whenever the gates are closed, the structure’s 43 pumps are used to evacuate drainage water from the interior of the city, which is a domestic contingency operation. USACE photo by Sarah McLaughlin

The 17th Street Outfall Canal Interim Control Structure in operation in New Orleans, La., on Aug. 30, 2012, following Hurricane Isaac. Once the Lake Pontchartrain water level triggers were reached, USACE closed the structure’s gates to prevent surge from entering the outfall canal. Whenever the gates are closed, the structure’s 43 pumps are used to evacuate drainage water from the interior of the city, which is a domestic contingency operation. USACE photo by Sarah McLaughlin

Emergency – contingency – operations may incorporate some aspect of those, as well. When a natural disaster exceeds local and state capabilities to respond, the president, at the request of one or more state governors, issues a declaration of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (commonly referred to as the Stafford Act), authorizing the use of federal resources.

Under the National Response Framework, which integrates 27 federal agencies and departments plus the Red Cross, USACE is assigned as the coordinator for Emergency Support Function (ESF) #3 – public works and engineering – and, during disasters, is the primary agency for response activities, such as providing ice, water, and temporary power. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary for ESF #3 recovery activities and can assign USACE missions to assist in the execution of recovery missions, including debris management.

“That is a domestic authority through which we support FEMA and DHS [Department of Homeland Security],” Durham-Aguilera said.

Typical ESF #3 operations performed by USACE also include:

  • participation in damage and needs assessments;
  • management and emergency contracting to support public health and safety;
  • assessments of damaged streets, bridges, ports, waterways, airfields, and other facilities necessary for emergency access to disaster victims;
  • emergency restoration of critical public facilities (including temporary restoration of water supplies and wastewater treatment systems);
  • emergency demolition or stabilization of damaged structures and facilities; and
  • technical assistance, including inspection of private residential structures and commercial structures.

The official Stafford process for a domestic operation begins with a governor contacting the president, who then tasks FEMA to respond. However, Hurricane Katrina and other events in recent years demonstrated the need for more advanced planning and coordination by all agencies – local, state, and federal.

“Katrina was a game-changer and wake-up call,” Durham-Aguilera said of improvements those agencies have made in the past decade. “We refined that with Hurricane Gustav in 2008, so by the time of Isaac, our response was as good and fast as it ever has been. But we still struggle to improve some areas.

“Every storm has a different track, characteristic, and dynamic, so people who were not flooded during Katrina did not think Isaac would be a problem. Isaac also was a big rain event, which Katrina was not. So that rain event hovered and did a lot more damage than people expected. Some of the public perished during Isaac because they did not understand the dangers of that storm. That is really on our minds.”

Even so, Isaac demonstrated how lessons learned and other improvements are being applied to USACE domestic contingency operations and how USACE works with FEMA and other agencies.

“FEMA keeps an eye on the weather and where they might be called in. And where we see that, we go with FEMA, sending advanced teams to areas that may be hit,” she explained. “The new FEMA director’s philosophy is ‘go big, go fast, go smart’ – but also have federal teams already there. So when the Stafford Act is triggered, we can go ahead and launch our teams. That is a big change post-Katrina. Before that, everything was very linear and it took a long time to get teams into place.”

“We also do anything dealing with federally owned systems and work out arrangements on the ground with local authorities,” Durham-Aguilera said. “That is a big improvement – teams set up ahead of time so we don’t have to wait until something happens to get to know the people we need to work with locally. One thing I do as the director is create a battle roster of teams around the nation, with their assignments, so we can deploy them as quickly as possible. It may sound easy, but a lot of rigor goes into making that happen.”

All that was demonstrated during emergency responses to major natural disasters in 2011-2012, from massive flooding in the Midwest to Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy.

Classified as a Category 1 hurricane less than 12 hours before landfall on Aug. 28, 2012, Isaac hit the Louisiana coast with 60 mph winds and a maximum surge of 6 to 12 feet along the central Gulf Coast. That surge and 10 to 19 inches of rainfall throughout southeastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida caused significant flooding and left nearly a million people without electricity at some point during the storm and its aftermath. Remnants of Isaac continued to plague the region through Sept. 5.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...