VICKSBURG, Miss. - Navigation, flood risk management, recreation, hydropower, environmental stewardship, and emergency response are facets of what we do at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Mississippi Valley Division (MVD), headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Within each of the overarching mission sets, are people in various career fields such as engineering, biology, geology, hydrology, legal, archeology, real estate, finance, business, emergency management, meteorology, technology, and the list could go on.
These professionals all work together on the same team to engineer solutions, produce energy, reduce flood risks, support outdoor recreation, and protect commerce, energy, agriculture, natural resources, and critical infrastructure such as schools, airports and hospitals. One could venture to say that if there’s a college degree that exists, then it probably exists under the USACE umbrella.
Including MVD, there are nine total divisions within the entire USACE spread across the world with their own missions. Ultimately, we’re all part of the same team comprised of approximately 34,000 civilians and 800 military members.
Teamwork is the cohesive bond which unites the Corps. Whether it be engineering solutions or disaster response, all across the enterprise – we communicate and assist one another.
This year’s hurricane season tested the USACE’s mission set of supporting the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. The Corps assists FEMA’s emergency support function #3 (ESF-3) mission by providing services, technical assistance, engineering expertise, construction management and other support functions to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters or incidents.
The USACE enterprise from across the country is leveraged during disasters as part of the National Response Framework (NRF). The NRF details guidelines that interface partners to include the Corps, communities, tribes, states, the federal government, and the private-sector in order to prepare for and respond to emergencies and disasters. When called upon, the Corps provides specific services during disasters such as critical public facility restoration, debris management, and temporary power, temporary housing and temporary roofing.
Hurricane Florence in early September provided the conduit for the Corps to come together and provide not only boots-on-the-ground assistance, but to offer their technological expertise. Geographic information systems (GIS) and the USACE’s Modeling, Mapping and Consequences Production Center (MMC) were two entities that the Corps utilized during this year’s hurricane season.
Depending on one’s need for geographic information, GIS allows users to see layers of information and data such as maps, roads, levees, and inundation or water levels all within a user-friendly web application.
Similarly, the MMC production center, a USACE virtual team working all across the U.S., produces hydrologic and hydraulic models, economic consequences models, flood inundation mapping, and data management to support emergency operations on request from USACE districts, divisions and USACE Headquarters (HQ), located in Washington D.C.
The MMC develops models that show inundations based on National Weather Service (NWS) precipitation forecasts at different times. Some of the models are unique to the Corps in that they simulate operational releases of water from USACE dams and show the impact on levee infrastructure. The model outputs then are converted to maps that run in web applications that are used by decision makers during disasters and catastrophes. These maps can be meshed with key transportation routes and other elements in order for trafficability on roadways to be viewed and flooded structures to be estimated. This is crucial in maintaining safety during disasters. Together, GIS and the MMC were synced this hurricane season to create a reporting tool bag of sorts.
As the threat of Hurricane Florence became a reality, the wheels were already turning within the USACE. Divisions and districts began talking to one another offering assistance and coordinating resources. The ultimate goal during any disaster is to save lives, protect critical infrastructure and assist in the recovery process.
There were many operating parts as emergency operating centers (EOC) activated in light of the impending hurricane. One of the “technical experts” at the Mississippi Valley Division is Jack Smith. Smith, MVD’s GIS coordinator, has been a part of the Corps family for more than 30 years. His technical expertise grew as his career field evolved. He started out in land surveying, then cartography which morphed into the geo-spatial realm of GIS. Not only is GIS a one-stop shop for data, the technology allows users to communicate “virtually” which is invaluable during disasters.
In preparation of Hurricane Florence, Smith and Matthew Parrish, a civil engineer, water manager, and GIS coordinator for the South Atlantic Division (SAD) headquartered in Atlanta, began coordinating GIS services as soon as they received confirmation that the hurricane would make landfall.
As the SAD water manager, Parrish coordinated modeling and mapping efforts with the MMC in Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile and Jacksonville Districts, HQ USACE and the NWS, FEMA, and US Geological Service (USGS).
“I helped facilitate the transfer of data and information between the groups,” Parrish said. “This ensured that critical areas were modeled and mapped. I also performed quality reviews on subsequent mapping products to make sure those products looked appropriate for the scenarios that were being modeled by the MMC and Wilmington District.”
In his role as GIS Coordinator, Parrish ensured that the information shared with all involved had a single source so that senior leaders and responders could see the exact same information. The benefits of the authoritative data set was two-fold.
“This prevented other GIS specialists from having to recreate a file for their own maps, dashboards and storymaps,” Parrish said. “And more importantly, confusion among senior leaders and responders was greatly minimized.”
In advance of the storm, Smith developed a GIS web portal to house critical data from partnering organizations such as the NWS, National Hurricane Center, and USGS. The GIS data hub was crucial for not only Hurricane Florence, but for Hurricane Michael as well. It allowed key players and leaders to stay abreast of the situation in SAD and to coordinate response efforts in the safest way possible.
The server for the GIS portal is housed at MVD’s Vicksburg District. The Corps’ use of this current technology is around three years old. Before, data coming from the field and from different districts was fragmented and inefficient.
“The great thing we’re doing with GIS is utilizing technology to have a central interface where data can flow faster and with fewer people,” Smith said. “In past events and especially in ESF-3 missions, you’d have multiple sets of reports coming in daily, not knowing which was most current. It was hard to find information. It might be at different websites or in a PowerPoint.”
With the GIS portal that Smith created, the data reported to division commanders came in from partners like the NWS and other USACE districts. The data was fed all the way up the chain to Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, U.S. Army Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the USACE.
“The biggest advantage that I’ve seen using GIS is sometimes you’d have multiple mission managers on the same mission with different sets of numbers like for blue roof. Numbers were all over the place. This could be because of time differences,” Smith said. “The GIS portal has added the capability to provide a central site where we can collaborate together. I can set something up for someone to put data in, and we have one set of numbers. It’s a very powerful collaboration tool.”
While Smith and Parrish were working on GIS, the MMC received a request from SAD to produce inundation products for seven river systems across two USACE districts, Charleston and Wilmington. The Yadkin River, Tar River, Roanoke River, Neuse River, Catawba River, Pee Dee River, and Cape Fear River basins in North and South Carolina were areas covered in the request.
Multiple entities across the Corps were meeting, talking, and planning to support SAD. The MMC participated in daily morning calls led by SAD to discuss inundation products with South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, Southeast River Forecast Center, USGS, NWS, FEMA, North Carolina’s Emergency Management, and the Corps’ Charleston and Wilmington Districts. Current and future weather conditions, current modeling assignments, additional areas of concern from personnel in the field, and any changes or additions to the current modeling assignments were topics covered during the coordination calls.
In addition, the MMC coordinated with the Engineering Research and Development Center, headquartered in Vicksburg, to share current maps and models and to plan for future taskings.
Not only were USACE divisions and districts implementing technologies ahead of the storm, but USACE HQ was heavily engaged as well. Headquarters used data from the GIS portal and from the MMC production center in order to make critical decisions.
Headquarters requested that the MMC develop trafficability information, a new application of the hydraulic model output. The MMC trafficability dashboard went live to the public shortly after the request. This dashboard showed peak water depth and daily depth maps for each river basin to portray water impacts to various types of vehicles. The general public and FEMA also began using the trafficability dashboard. The dashboard was updated daily until the end of the flood events.
FEMA used the depth grids and trafficability grid within the MMC’s trafficability dashboard. The value of the MMC’s products were unmatched as FEMA, U.S. Army field units, and states requested the data and created other products to support response and recovery planning operations. North Carolina’s Department of Transportation requested to use the inundation tools to be able to better assess state bridges and roads.
The GIS portal, which Smith developed, is still actively used today. Just recently, the SAD storyboard’s metrics showed well over 45,000 hits.
Partnerships are powerful in the Corps and are game changers during disasters.
“This year’s hurricane season brought together the exceptional skills of so many in the Corps,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division. “The geo-spatial team along with our people in the field were invaluable in providing assistance for Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Any opportunity that our people within the Mississippi valley have to assist is a source of pride for the entire U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
The Mississippi Valley Division’s Readiness and Contingency Operations office manages the Corps’ ESF-3 mission which is part of the NSF. Within that mission, MVD has five planning and response teams that can be enacted during a disaster. Starting at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the St. Paul District has the temporary housing mission. St. Louis District’s mission is temporary roofing. Vicksburg and New Orleans Districts share the debris mission. Memphis District has the temporary power mission. And, Rock Island District houses the National Flood Fight Materials Center.
Mississippi Valley Division’s six districts provided disaster response to a total of 19 events during 2018. More than 2,000 volunteers deployed and/or supported events to include floods, hurricanes, typhoons and the California wildfires. Even now during the holiday season, MVD has more than 100 team members deployed for response and recovery due to disasters.
Members of the Corps family support disasters at home station and others volunteer to deploy within the U.S. and as far away as the Middle East. They are members of your communities as well as civil servants, who take the Oath of Enlistment upon their assumption as a federal employee. With that comes commitment to the nation to “support and defend the Constitution” which entails “promoting the general welfare” of the publics for whom they serve. During disasters, this commitment becomes apparent as the Corps performs its duties to provide assistance and support to communities, states and our nation.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mississippi Valley Division provides on-going vital public engineering services at home and abroad during peace and war to strengthen our nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.
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