When heavy rains and frozen ground caused floods that resulted in $6.2 billion in damages across the Midwest last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) was there, sending personnel and volunteers to do everything from emergency levee repairs to sandbagging river banks and dropping hay from helicopters to livestock cut off by floodwater.
The USACE is made up of 37,000 civilian and military personnel, making it one of the world’s largest public engineering, design and construction management agencies. Its primary mission is managing and overseeing the system of dams, canals, reservoirs and flood control structures across the nation, but it also manages and constructs everything from shipping infrastructure to government office buildings, such as the $1.7-billion Next NGA West headquarters project in St. Louis.
The Corps has been named ENR Midwest’s Owner of the Year for the way in which the agency handled what it called the “floodfight” and for its promotion of resilience projects, along with maintaining and improving the vast array of infrastructure it manages through the Ohio and Great Lakes, Northwest and Mississippi Valley divisions.
A $999-million Rapid Disaster Infrastructure contract was the seventh-largest project in the region, according to ENR Midwest’s Top Starts ranking (see p. MW10), and is under the direction of USACE’s Omaha District, part of the Northwest Division.
“That [contract award] is a tool that we use to do responses to disasters across the country,” explains Col. John Hudson, commander and district engineer of the Omaha District. “It’s not for a specific disaster. It’s not specifically for the levees or a hurricane, but we’ll use it in multiple locations. It’s one of the tools that we use, but that’s not the only tool we’re using to get after the levees.”
Hudson says that after last spring’s record rainfall and flooding in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois, the USACE used its Rapid Response Team that, unique within the USACE, is designed to get contracts in place within 72 hours of an event like last spring’s floods. Just getting the team to some of the damaged levees was difficult because of the length of the rain and flood events and the fact that flows in the rivers were so high for so long that it was just impossible to even assess them in a timely manner, he says.
Over 80 Rapid Response contracts were used to repair damaged and breached levees since last year. Hudson calls them essential to effectively addressing the damage to the system.
“The Omaha District has been working nonstop since that flood in March 2019,” says Ted Streckfuss, deputy district engineer. “We continue to work even during the coldest parts of winter. We’ve been successful in continuing to work with our construction partners in order to continue to rehabilitate and close some of the breaches that exist.”
Across ENR Midwest’s 11-state region, the Ohio and Great Lakes Division of the USACE dealt with the same high water situations and some flooding, although not nearly as extensive as what happened in Omaha.
“The great thing is we work very closely with the National Weather Service, and our engineers are able to figure out and then predict, based on incoming storms, where they’re coming in, where that water is going to go,” says Maj. Gen. Robert Whittle, commander of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division. “Sometimes you’re left with an Ohio River that’s in flood stage, and if that’s the case, there are certain types of work that can’t be done on those days. Then we just move forward and do the best we can once the river goes down to get back on track.”
The series of locks and dams on the Ohio River that manage the commodity freight traffic of everything from grain to steel have been undergoing a planned modernization by the USACE over the last decade. Facilities such as the Olmsted Lock and Dam, in Olmsted, Ill., where the Ohio meets the Mississippi River, and the Braddock Locks & Dam on the Monongahela in Pittsburgh have either been newly created or had major upgrades. Construction methods such as “in-the-wet” construction were used extensively by the division to keep the waterways open while still updating infrastructure that, in some cases, was more than 80 years old.
“Floating construction is a cost savings. It’s innovative and it allows you to work in conditions where you do not have to I won’t say worry as much, but not be as concerned about the river levels because what’s being built is either on site, on land and floated in or built on a barge and then sunken in place,” says William Chapman, Great Lakes and Ohio River Division chief of operations. “There are just a lot of benefits to that.”
High water from rainier winters and springs has had an effect on all of this work, even when floods weren’t happening. A total of $60 million will go to Olmsted this year, mainly for dismantling Locks and Dams 52 and 53—the ones that Olmsted replaced when it opened in 2018, Whittle said.
“That impacts the work and the schedule, no doubt, and the operation of the project,” he says. “We had extensive work into 2020 that normally would’ve been probably completed in 2019.”
For the 2020 construction that’s just now getting underway, the division is planning active rehabilitation projects at Kentucky Lock No. 7 on the Ohio River, Locks and Dams 2, 3 and 4 on the Monongahela River and the Charleroi Locks and Dam.
Aside from the USACE’s missions responding to disasters and maintaining waterway infrastructure such as locks, dams and reservoirs, it’s also responsible for acting as the federal government’s manager for new projects such as the $1.7-billion Next NGA West Headquarters in St. Louis, which was ranked No. 3 on ENR Midwest’s Top Starts list. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is a combination of intelligence agency and combat support agency, whose mission is to catalog and manage all of the federal government’s GIS mapping data.
The campus, known as N2W, will replace the current NGA facility located south of downtown St. Louis. N2W will be built on a 97-acre site in a blighted part of town. Estimated completion date is April 2023, and the campus is anticipated to be operational by 2025. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Sen. Roy Blunt (R. Mo.) joked that had it not been for the efforts of himself and Congressman Lacy Clay (D.), the NGA and the massive project might have gone “across the bridge” into Illinois.
USACE hired the design-build team of St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos. and HITT Contracting of Falls Church, Va. The completed campus will include a 700,000-sq-ft office building, two parking garages, a visitor center and a delivery inspection facility.
“It’s rare to have an opportunity to build within a city,” says Stephanie Hall, the program manager for USACE. “It’s just not often done. What other major city in the U.S. can provide 97 continuous acres? The installation is Air Force property, but it’s not like being on a base.”
Jeff Boyer, McCarthy vice president of operations, says N2W is “a once-in-a-lifetime project,” and that the USACE is a client that has given the design-build contractor clear direction and an understanding of its view of the project.