Army Corps of Engineers official discusses the impact of Hurricane Harvey
By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 3, 2017
BEAUMONT, Texas – If one word could sum up the calamity of Hurricane Harvey, it would be water.
Here in Beaumont, flood waters that reached the rooftops in portions of the city have yet to recede, and thousands of homes have been destroyed. Roads all over town remain unpassable. Some feel like rivers.
But the storm caused another water problem: Pumps failed, leaving Beaumont without running water.
On Saturday, city engineers achieved what some feared could take many more days. They restored water service to Beaumont. It is not potable so it must be boiled and it is only at half pressure. But it’s a strong step, says Col. Paul Owen, the Army Corps of Engineers commander of the state’s Southwest Division, which is based in Dallas and includes all areas ravaged by Harvey.
Owen flew in Saturday from the Galveston headquarters -- the regional command of the Army Corps that covers much of the flooded Southeast -- for a quick visit to the plant. Stars and Stripes talked with him during that visit.
It was his engineers that made the difficult call Aug. 27 to release some water through the Barker and Addicks dams around Houston so the reservoirs wouldn’t overflow, even though it meant flooding in some areas there not devastated by the storm. Based on a seven-day forecast of less than one inch of rain, reservoir discharge rates are expected to continue for the next 10 to 15 days. The Corps of Engineers expects it will take about three months to release all the water from the reservoirs, with the goal of restoring its full capacity for storing flood waters.
Owen spoke about the challenges and what’s being done to address them. Some of the questions have been edited.
Question: So the Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with helping the city get its water running again?
Answer: We did get a FEMA mission assignment to deliver pumps to this mission and get the water back running. That happened a couple of days ago. In the meantime, these guys solved the problem themselves. So pretty incredible use of local industry and local engineers who figured out how to get it running without us. We are happy to provide our pumps ... so if anything goes down we can provide backup. But again, I am just really impressed with how the local community has rallied together to provide drinking water to the people here.
Q: What about reports that there’s still no running water?
A: The water is back on. It came on I think 30 minutes ago…. I just went through the plant with Paul Zeppe – [a former Army Corps civilian engineer who works for the city of Beaumont] -- and he’s been working at this plant, working along with his entire team for the past 72 hours straight coming up with really ingenious solutions to figure out how to get water to the people of Beaumont.
Q: How did they do it?
A: It’s just a combination of a whole lot of things. Our pumps could have been used but the original place where they were intended was still underwater. So these guys basically build a whole new dock to put the generators on and then get the water straight out of the river and pump it into the treatment facilities. So very amazing. They just figured out how to use another location – strung a bunch of pipes together and got some generators running. And all that stuff was contributed from local industry and people that just in time gave their time to operate machinery and lay down the foundation so they could get the … pumps on the site. It’s just an amazing effort. ... People take it for granted when you turn on your faucet and the water comes out. You don’t really realize till something like this happens what dedicated local government professionals do to provide services that we take for granted every day.
Q: What other challenges is the Corps facing here?
A: We have three priorities right now. One is managing the water flow that is coming out of Addicks and Barker (reservoirs) in the Houston area. We have two reservoirs that protected about $60 billion worth of infrastructure downstream. They are full now so we have to make sure that we release the water in a careful way to balance the impact between getting ready for the next storm and the people who are also having problems being inundated in their homes.
The other thing we are trying to do is restore the navigation channels. That’s part of our mission in the Corps of Engineers, to survey and then dredge out materials that were deposited in the waterways here. You know Texas is America’s Energy Coast and there is a ton of industry that uses these waterways. Some of them are open now and some are closed and they are certainly feeling the impacts to the local industry and maybe even nationally if we don’t get them open as quick as we would want to.
Q: Which waterways?
A: There is the Gulf Intracoastal waterway, there’s the Sabine Nature’s River navigation channel, which is the channel that leaves from here. In fact, Beaumont is the largest military transportation port for equipment. I know when I was at Fort Hood and we went to Iraq we shipped our equipment out of Beaumont here. And right now, it’s blocked because the channel has not been surveyed and dredged, we can’t verify the ships can actually get out to sea. So our job now is to go survey that channel and if we find material in it, we are going to dredge and take material out so we can get back to the authorized depth for this channel.
Q: How long is that going to take?
A: Well, we don’t know that yet. Because we still haven’t been able to get our vessels into this channel. If you’ve been out here, you’ve seen how fast the water is flowing. This is an incredible amount of water and everybody who has been working this plant for 30 years tells me they’ve never seen this before. So, we need the water to slow down before we can safely survey and figure out how deep it is. And then we have to bring the dredges in. So it’s – I don’t want to make a guess but -- more than a few days to get this done.
Q: Could the threat of Irma put a damper on that?
A: We are happy to see that a lot of the models are having Irma I think go up the northeast coast. And that’s not good for the Northeast, but right now after a storm you are a little bit more vulnerable than you would be if you had a little bit more resiliency. It would test our systems again significantly if we got another hurricane in the Gulf Coast.
Q: Regarding the reservoirs… releasing water in a controlled way, is that what flooded some Houston neighborhoods?
A: I think our water contributed a slight amount to the flooding but nothing compared to the total amount of water that fell. I think there was one estimate from a Harris County official who said more than a trillion gallons of water fell across the watershed for Houston. I don’t know what that looks like and can’t even compare. But I do know that our reservoirs have 160 billion gallons of water ... So, it’s about 2 percent, maybe less than 5 percent of all the water that was being contributed to the flooded homes was coming out of our reservoirs. But those reservoirs. ... You drive around Houston, there’s a lot of places that stayed dry because of those reservoirs. They are designed to protect about a 1.4 million people that are downstream from those reservoirs. There’s certainly an enormous amount of people that are suffering but there would have been many more if those projects weren’t in place and didn’t perform as they were designed.
Q: So when you started to realize that water was the biggest problem with this storm, you realized that a lot of it was going to fall to you guys to address?
A: We’ve done this before. We had drills for this. We have a great partnership with FEMA. You know, the Corps of Engineers works for FEMA in Emergency Support Function 3, which is public works and engineering and that includes all kinds of stuff. And then we also have our responsibilities under the Corps of Engineers, which are waterways and reservoirs and those kinds of things, especially when it comes to storms.
Q: Is there anything more you want to add?
A: I guess I would end by saying Galveston District of the Army Corps of Engineers has been incredible during the last three days. Just tremendously dedicated professional people, Department of Army civilians who have volunteered while their families have been impacted. They have put their rucksacks on and gone to work and figured out a way to help a greater number of people by managing the situation the way they have done it.