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USACE and Emergency Management

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helps lead the nationwide effort to minimize loss of life and damage from natural and man-made disasters


If you watch the news, you might have the impression that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) experience in emergency management (EM) is mostly in fighting floods. But the organization’s trained specialists often work behind the scenes to help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from events that, moments before they happened, were mostly unimaginable.

“We’re prepared to respond to all hazards, regardless of the event,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, P.E., SES, director, Contingency Operations and Homeland Security, USACE Headquarters.

In April 2013, for example, when a massive ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company storage facility in West, Texas, killing 15 people and destroying or damaging more than 150 buildings, USACE, in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), sent a team of experts in debris management and removal to help investigators assess the site of the explosion and to help the community handle the aftermath.

In January 2014, when 7,500 gallons of crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexanemethanol), a chemical foam used in coal processing, leaked from a storage tank in Charleston, West Virginia, and into the nearby Elk River, the spill left 300,000 residents in nine counties without access to drinkable water. While experts from USACE worked to procure and distribute safe drinking water to victims and responders, other USACE personnel worked with DuPont chemical company and West Virginia American Water, the local utility, to determine and monitor the levels of contamination.

damage assessment

A broken window frames a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worker as he participates in a joint state-federal preliminary damage assessment inspection of West Middle School, May 7, 2013. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was providing assistance to help the community recover from the April 17 West Fertilizer Company plant explosion in West, Texas. Norman Lenburg/FEMA

“We’re prepared to respond to all hazards, regardless of the event,” said Karen Durham-Aguilera, P.E., SES, director, Contingency Operations and Homeland Security, USACE Headquarters. “Most of the time we’re talking about natural hazards such as tornadoes, floods, or hurricanes. But we also prepare for man-made hazards – many of which don’t happen very often – such as a terrorist attack or an explosion at a fertilizer plant. We’re trained to be ready for anything, all the time.”


The Risk Management Life Cycle: Response

In applying a risk-based framework to EM within the United States, USACE and its federal, regional, and local partners address threats to life and property throughout the entire “life cycle” of disaster risk. Most familiar to Americans, because it’s the phase most often reported and broadcast as news, is the “response” phase, during the initial impact of a disaster, when the focus is on saving lives and preventing further property damage. Under the National Response Framework (NRF), which establishes guidelines for domestic response partners, 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 enumerates 14 different emergency support functions (ESFs) to be carried out in a federal disaster response. USACE takes the lead for ESF #3, public works and engineering, and is a supporting agency for four other functions. USACE’s EM expertise is gathered into more than 40 planning and response teams (PRTs), formed generally at the district level and composed of civilian employee volunteers trained and credentialed for their team’s particular role. Prepared, if necessary, to be deployable within as few as six hours, to support 24-hour operations, and to remain deployed for more than 30 days, USACE’s PRTs and support contractors are the workhorses of domestic emergency response: They provide water and key commodities; assess the soundness of infrastructure for emergency access; provide temporary roofing, housing, or critical facilities; assist with search-and-rescue operations; remove debris or floodwaters; and provide – with the help of experts from the Army’s 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) – emergency power to critical facilities.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...