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Just What Exactly is the Army Corps of Engineers?

Sep 14, 2005

With three out of five sentences during the Hurricane Katrina disaster including the term Army Corps of Engineers, I realized that I didn't know what that was.

Um, engineers in civil engineering? I knew that they engineered and built levees and jetties, for instance, but considering the disaster, I wanted to know more.

The Corps' history, according to Wikipedia, reaches all the way back to George Washington when, in 1775, he hired mostly French subjects from the service of Louis XVI to build military fortifications near Boston and Bunker Hill. A corps of engineers was stationed at West Point in 1802—the nation's first military academy. The U.S. Military Academy was under the direction of the Corps of Engineers until 1866. Interestingly, the Corps' authority over river works began with its fortification of New Orleans following the War of 1812.

The Chief of Engineers holds a staff position at the Pentagon, and commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Current CoE Major General Carl Strock was installed on July 1, 2004, replacing Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers who retired after 35 years of Army service. The CoE advises the Army on engineering matters while also serving as the Army's topographer and proponent of real estate and related engineering programs.

Under the Army's command, the USACE is the world's largest public engineering, design, and construction management agency. It's geographically organized into nine divisions and 45 subdivisions within the U.S., Asia, and Europe. Missions of the USACE include the areas of:

Water Resources

The Corps is proud to have the responsibility of helping to care for [the country's hundreds of rivers, lakes and wetlands, as well as thousands of miles of coastal shoreline]. Through its Civil Works program the Corps carries out a wide array of projects that provide coastal protection, flood protection, hydropower, navigable waters and ports, recreational opportunities and water supply.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental mission has two major focus areas: restoration and stewardship. The Corps supports or manages numerous environmental programs, that run the gamut from cleaning up areas on former military installations contaminated by hazardous waste or munitions to helping establish a small wetland that helps endangered species survive.


… the Corps maintains direct control 609 dams, maintains and/or operates 257 navigation locks, and operates 75 hydroelectric facilities generating 24% of the nation's hydropower and three percent of its total electricity. [Military Construction work includes] building ranges and other training facilities, barracks, dining halls, hospitals and workplaces for the Army; design, construction management and real estate services for the Air Force; and quality-of-life facilities such as recreation centers, commissaries and exchanges.

Homeland Security

Corps engineering expertise and emergency management abilities have become inextricably linked with the nation's homeland security. …The Corps has created an Office of Homeland Security, incorporating the emergency management program and other programs designed to ensure the security of the nation's infrastructure. Through its security planning, force protection, research and development disaster preparedness efforts and quick response to emergencies and disasters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is able to help save hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in property damage every year from natural and manmade disasters.


The Corps builds and helps maintain much of the infrastructure the Army and the Air Force use to train, house, and deploy our troops. Corps-built and -maintained navigation systems and ports provide an effective means to deploy vital equipment and other materiel. Corps research and development facilities are helping to develop new methods of deployment, force protection measures, terrain analysis and mapping equipment and provide other support. Real estate, contracting, mapping, construction, logistics, whatever the need, Corps professionals use the knowledge and skills honed on both military and civil projects to support the Soldier at the front.

That's one hell of a mandate; one that is carried out primarily by about 35,000 civilians, along with 650 military men and women. (Those numbers are from Wikipedia. Considering that the Corps also relies upon independent contractors—many of them contracted on the fly to handle such disasters—those numbers are, right now, undoubtedly much higher.)

While the USACE is a major force in the effort to return the Gulf Coast to normalcy, today, the news is all about the levees which, in New Orleans, formally date back to about 1890 when the Orleans Levee District was created. Dams are considered to be permanent structures, while levees are engineered to withstand flood pressure for only a few days at a time. Also, as we've all heard by now, the New Orleans levees were built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, not the more powerful Katrina that, it is widely believed, packed a Cat 4 punch.

There's more to the Corps than the levees, however, even during the Gulf Coast disaster. USACE's Public Works efforts extend far beyond 'un-watering' New Orleans. They provide drinking water and ice, remove debris, engineer emergency power, erect temporary shelters, fix roofs, clear roads and highways, and help re-establish commercial navigation on the Mississippi River and the Intercoastal Waterway.

Questions about local, state, and federal government response will likely go on for years and no doubt involve a 'Katrina Commission.' Specifically to the issue of New Orleans flooding and response, questions—some partisan, some not—are already being asked, of not shouted. They should be asked, and must be answered. In the meantime, however, more than two hundred years of the Corps' efforts should not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Corps of Engineers' Update to Hurricane Katrina Response