WILMINGTON — Frequently topping the nation’s most hurricane-prone states list behind Florida, North Carolina is accustomed to an active and often unforgiving hurricane season.
Many may not realize the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) headquarters for the entire state and portions of Virginia is located in Wilmington — a convenient coastal site for post-storm posturing but also a place where critical personnel must frequently assess their proximity to danger.
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Before Hurricane Isaias (and every summer storm season) the Wilmington District runs training exercises and a post-mortem of sorts to learn from missteps in previous years and build on how to more effectively move forward.
“We don’t wait until a hurricane is about to hit us until we start thinking about it. We’re thinking about it well in advance,” Wilmington District Commander Col. Ben Bennett said in a July 23 interview — days before the public learned of a storm system that would later become Hurricane Isaias.
“It’s a very deliberate decision-making process to make sure that you aren’t flat-footed and totally unprepared,” Bennett said.
Installed as Commander on July 10, Bennett was still adjusting to his new district and surroundings as Isaias made landfall in Ocean Isle Beach.
In a July 22 review exercise, Wilmington District leaders from USACE’s various departments took a deep dive into the district’s needs. Tucked away off Market Street, the Wilmington District employs more than 200 people in town and 400 district-wide. Except for a few key green-suiters, the public may not realize the entire district is hard at work before, during, and after storm events.
What USACE actually does
Given the nature of their work, the Army’s engineering arm has a nearly indiscernible post-storm public presence, despite being intertwined with the most visible agencies and responses.
Following a Presidential disaster declaration, USACE is triggered under the National Response Framework to head up as lead emergency support on public works and engineering issues. They also assist FEMA and the state as necessary by providing engineering expertise, technical assistance, and construction management to help communities recover from disasters.
The most obvious and well-known USACE functions — its Civil Works, shoreline management, Flood Risk Management (which oversees lake levels), and military construction projects — don’t fully encompass the corps’ post-storm or daily activities.
USACE employees are kept constantly busy overseeing less exciting, but equally important work, including contractual assistance, regulatory oversight, permitting actions, and more.
Hurricane season happens to coincide (in)conveniently with the end of the Corps’ fiscal year, when contracts are wrapping up and several funds must be obligated before they risk expiring.
Throughout Hurricane Florence, the Wilmington District executed 50 contracts in the month of September 2018 — unrelated to the hurricane. Representing about $65 million, the contracts had to wrap up before the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, according to Christine Brayman, Deputy for Programs and Project Management. “So we continued to be able to work — and that was regular work — while all this other stuff was going on,” Brayman said.
“Somebody has to make sure we’re still doing our own day-to-day operations,” Bennett said. “The work doesn’t stop just because there’s a hurricane. Hurricanes don’t stop just because there’s Covid.”
During a disaster, USACE is responsible for maintaining the integrity of critical public facilities. “The intent from FEMA is for the locals to be as self-sufficient as they can after large disasters,” Janelle Mavis, Chief of Readiness and Contingency Operations, said.
This could mean getting generators to hospitals, making sure a 911 center is online and operating, and even making sure that debris gets cleared from major roadways.
“We’re the nation’s engineers. We can have a lot of capacity that we can bring to bear on problems if it falls within the laws and regulations and we’re asked to do it,” Bennett said. “The depth and breadth of expertise within the Corps of Engineers is pretty expansive. More so than I really initially appreciated.”
Deputy Commander Maj. Rob Burnham, also sworn in last month, said one of his top priorities in reviewing past storms and making the right decisions when they inevitably arrive is positioning his team.
In Florence, USACE had top brass stationed in Charlotte — a move they likely won’t repeat again. Instead, leadership would likely be stationed in Raleigh within the state’s Emergency Operations Center.
Covid-19 has given the entire branch unexpected training in working in an all-remote environment, a condition disasters tend to induce. “Covid has forced us to become more effective at being remote,” Bennett said.
Before Covid-19, the entire agency had about 6,000 virtual private network (VPN) connections, which allows staff to access the enterprise computer network remotely; this wasn’t nearly enough to cover the agency’s all 35,000 employees.
“Covid helped us as an entire enterprise to increase those connections. So now everybody in the corp can use VPN,” Mavis said. “We can build upon each disaster to improve our training, our equipment.”
Having a plan is great, Mavis said, but exercising it frequently and updating it is more useful. “A plan is only as good as the last time you looked at it,” she said.
As the storm hits
As Isaias approached, the Wilmington District was in constant communication with the regional South Atlantic Division, which in turn, feeds information to headquarters in D.C. “You have to be synched at a division level because we were all in that cone until you get in farther,” Mavis said.
The district monitored its upstate dam reservoir levels, made sure its vessels were positioned in a safe place, connected with the Coast Guard, Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point, and the Port of Wilmington to offer assistance, and readied its Civil Works team to survey inevitable erosion.
“As the storm hits, you’re kind of riding it out,” Bennett said. “Mother nature always gets a vote and there are things that you can’t anticipate but there’s a lot of effort through experience to make sure that we know what those leading events and indicators and actions are that have an early lead time.”
After the storm
As soon as the sun is back shining, the team returns to assessing its infrastructure and remaining risks to the public. “How are our dams? Did we take any hit? What’s the flood level now look like? What is the port like? Is the port shoaled in, and we can’t get ships in and out so we can have relief supplies?” Bennett said are the few key questions the corps aims to address immediately post-storm.
Outside of the corps’ normal authority, the team may be tasked to assess any other public facilities, depending on impact and whether the state engages them.
Post-storm, attention shifts to analyzing floodwaters upstream, with monitoring provided by United States Geological Survey sensors strategically placed along water bodies across the nation. Using this data, USACE engineers run scientific models (before a disaster as well) to help inform decisions that would help alleviate full reservoirs. When USACE does choose to release water from a dam, it’s always a deliberate and calculated move — not something decided upon on a whim.
“So, the release of that swell of water that would have been going down the river, we’ve caught in the dam and now we’ve released it at a controlled level,” hydraulic engineer Edward Woodley explained.
This month, municipalities across the coast are undoubtedly engaging USACE, requesting shoreline assessments and itching to begin coastal storm risk management projects.
That phrasing may seem clunky, but it’s intentional. The public may recognize this type of work as “beach renourishment” or “shoreline protection,” but the corps has narrowed down what its role is and what its role isn’t in managing coastal shorelines. It used to be called “beach erosion control.”
“I think the corps got more sophisticated and said, we can’t control erosion. So then they called it shoreline protection. Well, we can’t really protect the shoreline. It morphed into coastal storm damage reduction, and that was getting good. After Katrina, we changed our vernacular again to coastal storm risk management or flood risk management to say, we can never take away all the risk. So you, state and local communities, you have to help us,” Brayman explained.
USACE coastal storm management projects require local municipal buy-in, which comes with certain strings, requiring the community to follow several provisions, including public beach access and strengthened development requirements in flood zones. “It’s very much a partnership both in requirements and often in funding. So I’m really proud of the corps for evolving its language.”
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