How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works

By: Dave Roos  | 
A debris engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspects a house devastated by Hurricane Sandy in Queens, N.Y.
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

On Oct, 29, 2012, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record made landfall north of Atlantic City, N.J. By that night, Hurricane Sandy had grown to a Category 1 storm with winds exceeding 80 mph (129 kph). One of the greatest dangers associated with hurricanes is the storm surge, the wall of rising seawater that the massive storm system pushes ashore, often causing disastrous flooding. In the case of Sandy, the storm surge was amplified by tide levels already 20 percent higher because of a full moon [source: Sharp].

When the roaring wind and pounding rain finally calmed, Sandy had taken 149 lives along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. Large portions of coastal New Jersey and New York were underwater, and the scope of the damage was staggering, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. How would these towns and neighborhoods ever recover? How would they dig themselves out of the wet, moldy debris and rebuild? And who would be there to help them?


Much of the relief effort, it turns out, was assigned to the United States Army Corps of Engineers. For more than 200 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) has been America's chief engineer, surveyor, water conservation manager, construction team and cleanup crew. There are 37,000 people employed by the Corps in 2013, only a small number of whom are actual soldiers. The rest are civilian engineers, architects, construction workers, disaster management experts and other professionals [source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers].

By April 2013, the Corps had removed nearly 1 million cubic yards (765,555 cubic meters) of debris from New York City alone. The Corps brought in hundreds of dump trucks and backhoes to move mountains of debris from Staten Island onto barges, which traveled up the Hudson River to a landfill. In the process, the Corps reserved 175,000 cubic yards (133,797 cubic meters) of recyclable and reusable materials, including reclaimed wood from damaged boardwalks [source: Lipton]. In addition, Corps surveyors and geologists conducted a comprehensive survey of the Atlantic coastline to recommend measures to reduce damage from future storms and rising sea levels due to climate change [source: Ward].

Disaster response is only one of the many important roles that the Corps plays in the United States and in more than 90 countries worldwide [source: USACE]. This federal agency has had a remarkable history, going back to the founding of America.


History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The building of the Miraflores lower locks at the Panama Canal, 1912.
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

In 1775, during the American Revolution, General George Washington appointed the first chief Army engineer. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) was officially set apart as a separate federal agency under the Department of Defense in 1802 [source: USACE]. In that same decree, Congress instructed the Corps to establish and operate the military academy at West Point, which was the only engineering college in America for the first part of the 19th century.

During the escalating tensions leading up to the War of 1812, the Corps helped to design and build impressive stone fortifications in key harbors and coastal locations from New York to New Orleans that proved impregnable to British attacks [source: USACE].


Corps topographers surveyed and mapped the unexplored expanses of the American continent, including its many rivers. In the 1820s, Congress authorized the Corps to improve the nation's waterways for easier transportation. The corps dredged shallow passes and cleared obstacles that hindered the flow of people and goods along these "highways" [source: USACE].

Throughout the 19th century, the Corps developed innovative hydrological technology like levees to reduce the impact of periodic flooding in the Mississippi Delta, and locks to manage the steep grade changes of the Ohio River. These technologies proved indispensable to the construction of the Panama Canal (1907-1914), the greatest engineering marvel of its time. While the canal was technically the work of the Panama Canal Commission, many of the project's chief engineers came directly from the Corps [source: USACE].

During the Civil War, battalions of engineers built floating bridges called "pontoons" to transport Union troops and supplies across strategic river crossings. In World War I, combat engineers constructed hundreds of miles of railroad lines and bridges to the front lines in France. And in World War II, the Corps cleared paths through a net of offshore mines for the landing at Normandy and constructed troop housing and hospitals for 4.37 million American soldiers in Europe and the Pacific [source: USACE].

In peacetime, the Corps turned its attention to flood prevention, particularly along the Mississippi River and Delta, where levees alone proved insufficient in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After a chemical explosion in Texas in 1947, the Corps stepped up its commitment to disaster response and cleanup, taking a lead role in disaster relief efforts until the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in 1988. Today, the Corps operates under the direction of FEMA in cleanup efforts following hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and even volcanic eruptions.


Missions of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Martha Militano (left) signs a right-of-entry form authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the remains of her home after Hurricane Sandy.
U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

The Army Corps of Engineers continues to serve in critical capacities in both military and civilian life. To support the military, the Corps is the chief engineer and builder of military barracks and fortifications abroad. The Corps also plays a central role in post-war reconstruction efforts in places like Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also responsible for remediation efforts to remove toxic waste from former military sites in the U.S. and abroad.

Since the 1950s, the Corps has served a diplomatic and foreign aid mission as the engineering lead on infrastructure projects worldwide. The Corps has built roads, highways, railroads, airports, ports and water systems in countries from the Middle East to Africa and East Asia.


The Corps remains the chief conservation agency for America's rivers, coastlines, lakes and wetlands. It operates more than 600 dams — including large hydroelectric power generators — maintains 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers) of inland rivers and canals, manages 926 coastal and inland harbors, and preserves tens of thousands of acres of wetlands through its regulatory oversight [source: USACE].

Disaster planning and relief continues to be a major mission. In addition to clearing away debris after a storm, the Corps is charged by FEMA with delivering truckloads of bottled water and bagged ice to disaster victims. It also builds temporary housing for displaced victims and contributes to reconstruction efforts. In the wake of the levee failures in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, the Corps conducted a $13 billion overhaul of the levee system [source: Cart].

Any construction project that alters the shoreline of a river, is located near or within a wetland, or requires the dredging of a body of water, must receive a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers [source: USACE].

The agency also conducts scientific research and technological development, mostly pertaining to water conservation, geology and ecology. It opened the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) in Vicksburg, Miss. following the Great Flood of 1927. The WES campus, which is now the headquarters of the Engineer Research and Development Center, is home to five separate R&D labs operated by the Corps studying everything from hydraulics to information technology, with additional research centers in Virginia, Illinois and New Hampshire [source: USACE].

The Army Corps of Engineers helped build the backbone of the U.S. water infrastructure, and has saved countless lives through its disaster planning efforts, but the agency is not without its critics.


Criticisms of the Corps

The 17th Street Canal pumps are tested during a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hurricane preparation exercise in New Orleans, 2007. A breach in the 17th Street Canal levee flooded the area with more than 10 feet of water after Hurricane Katrina.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina bombarded New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, claiming 1,570 lives in Louisiana alone and reducing whole neighborhoods to flood-ravaged wastelands. The cause of much of the catastrophic flooding was the failure of large sections of floodwalls designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold back storm surges. Katrina, despite being a relatively tame Category 3 storm, damaged 169 miles (271 kilometers) of the 350-mile (563-kilometer) floodwall system, sparking accusations of faulty construction and inadequate maintenance by the Corps [source: CBS News].

In a 2009 report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, internal investigators cited uncoordinated construction and outdated information for the failure of the floodwalls, and Corps leadership took full responsibility for the flooding [source: CBS News]. But that admission was not enough to silence the most vocal critics who believe that the agency should be liable for damages to property and loss of life.


More than 490,000 New Orleans residents filed claims with the Corps for damages. After eight years, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval was unable to award any financial damages because of a 1928 federal law that grants the Corps immunity from prosecution in cases involving the failure of flood control structures [source:Schleifstein].

In his final ruling in 2013, Judge Duval wrote, "I feel obligated to note that the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Army Corps of Engineers is virtually unaccountable to the citizens it protects" [source:Schleifstein].

Other critics echo Judge Duval's denunciation. They believe that in many cases state and local governments, and even private contractors, could do a better job for less taxpayer money [source: Edwards].

In the cleanup after Hurricane Sandy, for example, the Corps was criticized for charging $100 per cubic yard of storm debris to the state of New York, while New Jersey only paid $50 per cubic yard to its own private contractor. The Corps said the cost was justified because of the complicated nature of the debris removal, including the use of barges and the recycling efforts undertaken [source: Lipton].

"Some people think the Corps is expensive, but when you see what we bring to the table, we really are not," said Col. John Pilot, the debris team chief. "We do it right" [source: Lipton].


Frequently Answered Questions

What do the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the design and construction of public works projects, including bridges, dams, levees, and canals. The Corps also provides engineering support to the military and disaster relief efforts.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works

Before researching this article, I knew next to nothing about the Army Corps of Engineers. I suspect I'm not the only one. I hope you were as surprised as I was to learn about the scope of the Corps' work, and that most of it resides in the civil works program, supporting water conservation and disaster relief. I am no engineer — I maxed out with Legos — but I greatly appreciate the unique skill set that engineers possess. As I read about widespread blackouts in Pakistan or the tragic collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, I'm thankful that the U.S. infrastructure is, for the most part, safe and sound. And I am proud that the Corp exports some of its expertise abroad to modernize roads, bridges and ports in developing countries.

Related Articles

  • Cart, Julie. "New Orleans to take over upkeep of billion-dollar levee system." The Los Angeles Times. Nov. 28, 2012. (May 31, 2013)
  • CBA News. "Katrina Report Blames Levees." Feb. 11, 2009. (May 31, 2013)
  • Edwards, Chris. "Cutting the Army Corps of Engineers." The CATO Institute. March 2012. (May 31, 2013)
  • Lipton, Eric. "Cost of Storm-Debris Removal in City Is at Least Twice the U.S. Average." The New York Times. April 23, 2013. (May 31, 2013)
  • Schleifstein, Mark. "Federal judge blasts Army Corps of Engineers for failing to protect New Orleanians during Katrina." The Times-Picayune. April 15, 2013. (May 31, 2013)
  • Sharp, Time. "Superstorm Sandy: Facts About the Frankenstorm." Live Science. Nov. 27, 2012. (May 31, 2013)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Mission Overview."`
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Obtain a Permit." (May 31, 2013)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: A Brief History." (May 31, 2013)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Overview." (May 31, 2013)
  • Ward, Justin. "Corps of Engineers Begins Post-Sandy Comprehensive Study of North Atlantic Coast." U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. May 29, 2013. (May 31, 2013)