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USACE Reconceptualizes Flood Risk Management

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s (USACE) first disaster response mission was relatively straightforward: When the Mississippi River flooded in 1882, USACE transported supplies in and civilians out. But in terms of emergency response, as USACE’s scope of responsibility expanded, so too, did the concept itself. Rather than reacting to disasters as they arose, sophisticated response models have been developed to provide both short- and long-term guidance. And rather than working individually, USACE now partners with multiple stakeholders year-round. In an effort to maximize flood risk reduction, USACE is replacing black-and-white reactionary measures with multi-faceted strategies – and using flood risk management to pave the way.

Flood response is among USACE’s oldest and most familiar disaster response missions. While technology and expertise have advanced exponentially since its first assignment more than 100 years ago, both would be ineffective had the overall approach to flood response not progressed as well.

Initially, USACE sought to control floods and protect the public by reacting to high-water events immediately before and after they occurred. It soon became clear, however, that regardless of the resources available, providing complete protection was simply impossible. So, instead of trying to control floods, USACE began planning on how to best reduce the risk associated with them.

Eventually, the flood response strategy evolved one step further to its current form, life-cycle flood risk management. Flood risk reduction allowed for more planning, but emergency response officials wanted an approach that was more comprehensive in both purpose and time. By preparing for disasters year-round, the life-cycle method unites emergency operations with longer-term planning, effectively linking the entire civil works mission.

Instead of a binary before-and-after approach, the life-cycle method comprises four equal components: (1) preparation and training, which includes all actions taken before the event; (2) response, all tasks during the event; (3) recovery, immediate repairs and assessments; and (4) mitigation, analyzing past events to better prepare for the future.

While there is still major preparation before and after the event, the life-cycle approach transforms reactionary efforts to proactive planning. In addition to expanding the approach overall, USACE is revising its policy guidance to better align risk reduction policy to incorporate this model.

Furthermore, the life-cycle method not only fosters interagency cooperation, but it depends on it. Because local, state, and federal organizations play a unique role in flood response, respective leaders are periodically involved in all stages of planning. To date, some key players in these discussions have included the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Association of State Floodplain Managers, and the National Association of Flood & Stormwater Management Agencies.


Silver Jackets

If this cyclic approach to flood response is a crucial planning development, then the Silver Jackets Program is essential for the execution of these plans. Initiated in Ohio six years ago, Silver Jacket teams are state-led, interagency collaborations whose main goal is to reduce flood risk at the state level. Even though each organization operates under its own authority, these groups maximize cooperation and enhance the overall response. To date, there has been great progress in developing state-led flood risk management teams across the country, as shown on the map above, with the Silver Jackets Program supporting 27 active teams and 23 more in earlier stages of development.

In addition to furthering interagency communication, Silver Jacket teams work year-round, allowing not only for the improvement of current processes, but for the identification of gaps in the system and counteractive programs. Such strategic planning leverages all agencies’ resources more effectively, preventing duplicate efforts and permitting smarter spending.

“No agency has one solution, each has one or more pieces, and together they prioritize issues for maximum risk reduction,” said Karen L. Durham-Aguilera, USACE director of contingency operations.

Above all, however, Silver Jackets teams essentially embody the life-cycle approach. In uniting agencies, these teams drive flood response efforts around the cycle, efficiently prioritizing short-term efforts, which in turn, allow for more effective long-term civil works planning, which ultimately will reduce risk overall.


Risk Reduction

While reconceptualizing flood risk management is critical for internal operations, reshaping the public’s understanding of risk is equally important. After examining emergency responses and analyzing events of years past, USACE realized that infrastructure does not eliminate risk. It can buy critical time for local emergency management officials to safely evacuate residents. Additionally, communicating risk is a shared responsibility among federal, state, local, and private partners, and crucial so that individuals can make well-informed public safety decisions for themselves and take appropriate action.

Furthermore, the best way to reduce risk is for all agencies and individuals to work together. As the Silver Jackets demonstrate, each federal and non-federal organization has an important role before and after flood events. And from land-use planning and development to building codes, operation and maintenance, to repair, rehabilitation, and replacement of the levee, purchasing flood insurance to taking direction from local officials, each has its part to play in reducing risk. This shared-responsibility approach to risk reduction is known as the stair-step model.

“This is the stair step model; although the Corps will do the best it can, everyone has to play a part for maximum reduction,” said Durham-Aguilera.

From emergency response to risk reduction, USACE is actively working to revisualize both internal and external perceptions of flood risk management. Instead of using simplified black-and-white models, these two concepts have evolved into a comprehensive shade of gray – or in this case, silver. Flood response is no longer seen in terms of unilateral emergency operations, but rather a continuous mission involving multiple organizations. And while there are certainly challenges that lay ahead, such as attempting to shift from a localized state effort to a broader sustainable, watershed, and systems approach, flood response is now more sophisticated than ever before.

This article first appeared in the 2011-2012 edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces publication.