The Role of the Army Corps of Engineers in Natural Disasters

Updated: February 20, 2021
In this Article

    The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) responds to natural disasters and other emergencies as part of its relief mission work. The USACE story begins in the earliest days of America; the federal government got into disaster relief work which first began helping people avoid flooding along the Mississippi River after the Civil War.

    Army Corps of Engineers and their Role in Natural Disasters Not long after this effort, USACE was forming–it would take time to grow into the major federal concern it is today, but the evolution did happen.

    What is the role of USACE in natural disasters? That depends greatly on the disaster. Army Corps of Engineers activities have included snow removal after a major blizzard to disaster responses associated with volcanic activity.

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    What Is USACE?

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a “primarily civilian” federal public engineering, design, and management agency that operates as part of the Department of Defense. It has a mandate to do public works, disaster relief, humanitarian missions, and engineering projects.

    The Army Corps of Engineers Mandate For Disasters

    USACE doesn’t focus exclusively on natural disasters, but in that area the agency has two basic mandates:

    Emergency Support Function #3

    USACE is tasked, under the National Response Framework, to function as the primary federal agency for Emergency Support Function #3 – Public Works and Engineering.

    According to the Corps official site, this role includes assisting the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, “by coordinating federal public works and engineering-related support, as well as providing technical assistance, engineering expertise, and construction management to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and/or recover from domestic incidents.”

    Core missions under Emergency Support Function #3 include:

    • Temporary Emergency Power
    • Temporary Housing
    • Temporary Roofing
    • Debris Management
    • Critical Public Facilities
    • Infrastructure Assessment
    • Technical Assistance
    • Water/Wastewater Response
    • Support for Urban Search & Rescue (US&R)

    Emergency Support Function #9

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also functions as a supporting agency for Emergency Support Function #9 – Search and Rescue. FEMA acts as the lead agency in this respect, but USACE must support in a variety of ways including supporting the National Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Response System.

    The Role of USACE In Natural Disasters: A Timeline

    From virtually the moment the agency was created, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has participated in a wide variety of natural disaster efforts.

    1800s-1906: The first federal relief effort involved helping people escape flooding at the Mississippi River in 1865. In 1882 USACE was already active and helping out with yet another Mississippi flood incident.

    USACE was getting a lot of experience dealing with rising waters but also with other natural disasters; a Pennsylvania flood in 1889 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

     1937-1960: USACE gets a reorganization; the earliest version of today’s USACE “districts” was created to help develop region-specific disaster recovery plans. In 1937, USACE contingency planning was upgraded to include flood recovery plans district-by-district.

    1947 brought a unique problem for the Corps to deal with–an explosion of more than two thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate that occurred in Texas City, Texas.

    This disaster involved a fire and explosion on board the  SS Grandcamp. The explosion created a whopping 15-foot tidal wave. More than four thousand people were affected by the incident.

    In 1949, a blizzard dumped as much as 40 inches of snow on some parts of the Great Plains, resulting in a need for the Army Corps of Engineers to participate in emergency snow removal operations there. Going forward, USACE was gaining a reputation for being the go-to agency for natural disasters, but especially issues dealing with water, canals, dams, etc.

    1950-1980: The passage of the Federal Disaster Act of 1950 codified the USACE role as a lead federal disaster agency; the legislation identifies USACE as the nation’s leading flood response organization.

    In 1960, there were a pair of major natural disasters requiring Corps of Engineers help; an earthquake in Alaska in 1964 registered 9.2 on the Richter Scale; the quake hit approximately 15 miles south of Prince William Sound.

    Another disaster came in the form of Hurricane Camille in 1969, and by the time USACE efforts were required for Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, it was clear that more federal responsibility for disaster recovery efforts would be required. In 1974, Congress began taking steps to make that happen.

    In 1979 a new agency would change the face of American disaster recovery efforts; the  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was named in Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978. FEMA and USACE work closely together and represent an important resource in times of natural disasters.

    1980 and Beyond: USACE formally establishes an emergency management program in the late 1980s; the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act included language authorizing FEMA to provide services for any disaster no matter what the cause. USACE and FEMA would partner for future needs in the wake of floods, volcanoes, and even viral outbreaks.

    From 1989 to the present, USACE efforts have included:

    • The Exxon Valdez oil spill
    • Hurricane Hugo
    • Loma Prieta Earthquake in California
    • Hurricanes Andrew
    • Hurricane Iniki
    • Mississippi River flooding
    • Missouri Rivers flooding
    • Northridge earthquake in California

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Role In Coronavirus Relief Efforts

    USACE provided a vital service during the coronavirus pandemic; domestic relief operations include construction of alternative treatment areas in places like New York City. As of March 25, 2020, USACE was tasked with five FEMA mission assignments worth more than $300 million and requiring over 250 people to carry out.

    A press release issued by USACE reminds that the agency coordinates with federal and non-federal entities in the disaster relief efforts intended to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. These efforts include coordination with FEMA, the National Guard, individual state governments, and contractors.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team