Last year’s hurricane season wrought a substantial amount of damage to the southern United States and the U.S. Caribbean Island territories—including to the water infrastructure of those regions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been integral to the response to and recovery from those storms. Under the Flood Control and Coastal Emergency Act, the Army Corps provides disaster preparedness and response services, mobilizing its people nationwide to “support immediate life saving and life safety emergency response priorities[;] sustain lives with critical commodities, temporary emergency power, and other needs[;] and initiate recovery efforts by assessing and restoring critical infrastructure.”
To learn more about the Army Corps’ emergency management of water resources during significant storm events, Municipal Water Leader’s senior writer, John Crotty, spoke with Sean Smith, principal hydrologic and hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps here in Washington, DC, about the scope of the Army Corps’ emergency services as they relate to water infrastructure and the agency’s drive to protect public health and safety.
John Crotty: Last year’s storm events brought water resources emergency management into focus. Please provide a brief overview of the Army Corps’ water resources emergency management operations.
Sean Smith: Primarily authorized for flood risk management, Army Corps projects also may have water supply for municipal and industrial purposes and environmental purposes, as well as hydroelectric power generation and recreational purposes. Our operators and water management specialists oversee the day-to-day operations of those facilities. We are situationally aware of project operations 24 hours, 7 days a week. In some cases, we will man those facilities or our operations management offices 24/7—typically, when there is an impending storm coming our way.
Through the day-to-day operations of those facilities, we maintain regular contact with our other federal agencies and partners as well as responsible state and local entities regarding the collection and dissemination of information and data. When you start talking about warnings and notifications, we work very closely with our sister agency, the National Weather Service. In its capacity, the National Weather Service serves as the official weather prediction and forecasting agency for those types of events.
John Crotty: How does the Army Corps communicate with local water providers and emergency management agencies?
Sean Smith: We work directly with state emergency management agencies in terms of information and data sharing as well as for any specific coordinated actions for emergency preparedness and response. That is not to say we do not have regular communication with other nonfederal entities. It is common that we will have day-to-day or other routine coordination meetings with state water management districts or municipalities. This sort of effort could be for a wide array of purposes, such as collaboration for coordinated operations of facilities, emergency preparedness, or support for ongoing initiatives involving common touch points for our agencies.
When there are large-scale storm events, we work with the state and emergency management officials who in turn work with local emergency management officials for coordinated actions in preparation or response to the storms. Using our liaisons in a coordinated fashion ensures that the essential pieces of information are disseminated in an efficient manner.
We are in lockstep with our sister agencies and work closely with the state emergency management offices for the dissemination of critical information as an event unfolds. We are in constant communication throughout the event or series of events. What actually occurs when a storm hits landfall may be very different from our predictions. The Army Corps is nimble in being able to adjust to these circumstances and is adaptable in our response while always staying in lockstep with other emergency responders and agencies.
John Crotty: What is the scope of the Army Corps’ disaster response?
Sean Smith: Once the bulk of a storm has come through a region, we’ll do an assessment and evaluation of our facilities. We stay in communication with the local and state emergency management offices. You might think of it as disaster preparedness and response.
But we don’t just do it in disasters; we do it in all events. In Houston, for example, disaster preparedness and response meant we were looking ahead as Harvey developed. During the event, Army Corps Headquarters provided support and assistance to our Southwestern Division. We aided in the orchestration of resources to the division and worked closely and in an integrated fashion with the flow of information necessary to make decisions and take appropriate actions for overall preparedness and response.
After a storm event passes, we get into the response effort—that is where a substantial amount of effort is applied in terms of how we manage water after it hits the ground and provide resources to emergency responders, where necessary—whether that be with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] or in a liaison role to other federal or state agencies or local water management agencies.
John Crotty: Please describe the Army Corps’ emergency action planning.
Sean Smith: Within our own agency, we have an emergency action plan for all our facilities. The plans set forth much of the who, what, when, where, and why associated with coordination. The plans also set forth when we are to reach out, when we send our liaison officer to emergency management offices, and how we put people into gear.
However, not everything rises to the level of an emergency. Operations at all our facilities are governed by a water control manual that details the characteristics of the basin and all the attributes that go with the project and how we operate a facility. For example, the manual details seasonal operations setting forth actions to take at different times of the season or during a storm event. If necessary, our water control manuals have policy provisions that allow for deviations when appropriate. These deviations are intended to serve the purpose of altering operations to better respond to changing conditions that might not otherwise have been addressed through prescribed, within normal operational procedures.
John Crotty: What should every water provider know about emergency management at the Army Corps?
Sean Smith: Public health and safety is paramount to the mission of the Corps. It is our number one mission. Proactive engagement with the local entities in understanding their roles and responsibilities with regard to public health and safety is also something we work collectively to bolster, with the intent of continual improvement in how we work together.