How the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Works

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