Hurricane response lessons from the Army Corps of Engineers

Updated: Aug 25


Hurricane response and recovery require seamless and dedicated preparedness of many federal, state and local government agencies. The larger or more devastating the hurricane, the greater the number and variety of government and private organizations that could respond.

From 2013 to 2017, I served as commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic and South Pacific Divisions. During this time, we dealt firsthand with operations involving Hurricane Matthew, the strongest hurricane of 2016, and Tropical Storm Joaquin in 2015. Also, within weeks of relinquishing command in 2017, three monster hurricanes made landfall: Harvey, Irma and Maria. During each of these events, prior planning and collaboration were decisive to the command’s ability to respond effectively.

The first lesson of an effective response is that preparation is key. My teams conducted annual hurricane preparedness training with senior FEMA representatives and other federal representatives. We built realistic training scenarios that tested our ability to respond and ultimately recover from Hurricanes ranging from Categories 1 to 5.

Also crucial to an effective response is to recognize what causes the most danger. Flooding and storm surge are the major hurricane risks that result in loss of life and property. That’s why readiness, while it cannot eliminate the loss of life and property, can significantly mitigate the loss. Prior to needing hurricane recovery and response support, I met with Governors within my region. The States’ Emergency Preparedness Offices have the lead and the federal government serves as a backup until the President declares a State of Emergency.

Meeting with Governors is paramount to the Corps of Engineers’ ability to launch effective operations after a major disaster such as a hurricane. Early engagement invokesthe age old principal of “making a friend before you need their support.”

During 2015, early in my command of the Army Corps’ South Atlantic Division, I met with the Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal. We discussed key Federal permitting actions and the Army Corps’ role in responding to disasters. My Savannah District quickly and appropriately resolved one of the permitting actions that had concerned Governor Deal. This initial contact established a relationship built upon trust and professionalism.

Several months later, I called Governor Deal and informed him I needed to relocate two dredges that were working high priority dredging missions for the Savannah and Brunswick Ports. He was not pleased with my decision but told me he would support my request. I promised the Governor that if an emergency happened in Georgia, I would personally ensure that Georgia was given the emergency support it needed.

Less than a year later, Hurricane Matthew hit Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers delivered on my promise, and then some. To augment our response team, we brought in a Corps District Commander from outside our region to serve as Liaison to the State’s Emergency Operations Center as well as other critical support. Because of our excellent relationship with the State, synchronization of the response and recovery effort was significantly enhanced.

As we enter the peak of Hurricane season it is paramount that state and local governments understand how the federal government’s National Response Framework provides emergency management doctrine to guide the Nation’s response to all types of emergencies. Preparation now will save lives later.

Gen. (ret) Dave Turner

Senior Advisor

Formerly Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers South Atlantic and South Pacific Divisions, Gen. (ret) Dave Turner joined Dawson & Associates in 2019.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.

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