Nebraska Engineering alumni are well represented in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District, according to the district’s executive officer: Thomas A. O’Hara III, a 1992 graduate of UNL’s electrical engineering program.
O’Hara said, “Our ranks are filled with a whole herd of battle-hardened Huskers”—with estimates of nearly 100 College of Engineering graduates serving throughout the Corps’ district operations. In the spring and summer of 2011, virtually all of these individuals have indeed endured a battle: with nature, fighting flooding in the Missouri River Basin.
Several of these Nebraska Engineering alumni lingered after a flood-related meeting at the Corps’ Omaha office and shared perspectives on their work. They said the Corps strives to be as responsive as possible to the public as it pursues flood risk reduction—though, in recent extreme conditions, some constituents have challenged Corps actions.
At the hub of this activity is Kimberly “Kim” Thomas, chief of the district’s Readiness Branch: tasked with emergency and disaster preparedness as well as response and recovery associated with both natural disasters and national security emergencies. With her 2002 B.S. in civil engineering from UNL, she leads the Omaha district’s Emergency Operations Center. She has deployed numerous times to deal with natural disasters, but this time it’s much closer to home.
“Observing the citizens around a disaster is very telling,” Thomas said, “and the way Midwesterners have come together, helped each other and faced this unprecedented flooding speaks volumes of the character of the people of our country’s heartland.”
“We well understand how folks feel with such unparalleled flooding and suffering as a consequence of it,” said Thomas. “However, I sincerely hope that they grasp just how devastatingly horrendous this all could have been were it not for this system and the labors by so many conscientious members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."
District Chief of the Engineering Division John Bertino, who graduated from UNL in 1982 with a specialization in geotechnical engineering, assessed 2011’s unprecedented flooding: “During the months of June, runoff from the snowmelt and rainwater into the Missouri River basin above Sioux City, Iowa, was the highest since records began to be kept in 1898."
Bertino described factors that combined to create a ‘perfect storm’ scenario in spring 2011. First, above-normal snowfall across the upper Midwest plains was joined by record amounts of rain—300 to 600 percent above normal—in eastern Montana, northern Wyoming and the western Dakotas. In addition was the melting of the high, super-saturated mountain snowpack, which peaked late in the season at 135 to 140 percent above normal. Those areas’ engorged streams and creeks then fed the "Big Muddy," which reaches further than the Mississippi River.
Another Nebraska Engineering alumnus—John Remus, who earned his B.S. in civil engineering (1982) and M.S. in engineering (1985)—also logged long hours combatting the 2011 flooding. As chief of the Corps’ Hydrologic Engineering Branch, a number of his duties are tied to the design of flood control and channel stabilization.
Nebraska Engineering alumni work together at the Army Corps of Engineers' district offices in Omaha. John Remus (left), chief of the Hydrologic Engineering Branch kids John Bertino (center), chief of the Engineering Division, about wearing a suit after days spent in more humble work attire while clamoring up and down muddy levees and checking on dams. Fellow alumna Kim Thomas (right), in charge of the Emergency Operations Center as the district's Readiness Branch Chief, enjoys a light moment with her colleagues.
Thomas A. O'Hara III, '92 B.S. ELEC, is executive officer of the Omaha District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Daniel Saniuk, '82 B.S. CIVE, is chief of the USACE's Northwest Division's Military Programs.
Remus focused on the literal and figurative depth and breadth of the 2011 flooding. "Put in perspective, the unparalleled runoff Bertino described was 13.8 million acre feet (maf) of water, compared to the previous record of 13.2 maf in April of 1952.” He added that the situation was worsened by the fact that this came on the heels of the wettest May on record—with 10.5 maf of runoff—which was the third wettest month in 112 years.
"To better understand the enormity of this all, the combined runoff of those back-to-back months totaled 24.3 maf—just short of the normal annual runoff of 24.8 maf,” Remus explained. “That’s a pile of water!"
"They’re focused professionals. They work hard and they truly do everything they can for folks along the Missouri River Basin."
- Thomas O'Hara III
“Here on the Missouri River, the Corps has six mainstem dams, constructed from 1933 to the early 1960s, … to regulate a river that stretches from Three Forks, Mont., to St. Louis, Mo.,” said UNL civil engineering 1982 graduate Larry Janis, chief of the district’s Natural Resources and Recreation Branch, Operations Division. “The Corps not only operates and maintains the dams and reservoirs, we’re also tasked with the regulation of this system of reservoirs,” which must take into account eight congressionally authorized purposes: flood control, navigation, hydropower, irrigation, fish and wildlife, water supply, water quality and recreation.
“Flood control is just one of the eight,” Janis added. “Of the eight, flood control is the only purpose that requires empty space in the reservoirs.”
“It’s important people know that all release decisions made this year have been focused on flood control,” Janis continued. “And despite record releases this summer, the reservoirs—along with hundreds of miles of levees—are still reducing flood damages throughout the basin.”
“These facilities have been very near their capacity, as behind those dams lies 72.9 million acre feet of water,” Janis noted, equating that amount to one and a half feet of water covering the state of Nebraska.
Janis’ UNL civil engineering classmate, Daniel Saniuk, is chief of the Corps’ Northwestern Division’s Military Programs. Saniuk advised that the actions taken by the Corps are neither capricious nor emotion-based, but stem from extensive and careful analysis of the Missouri River going back to the landmark flooding of 1881 and 1952. Saniuk said the reservoir system regulation is guided by the Corps' Master Water Control Manual, a comprehensively reviewed document.
The Huskers on the Corps’ Omaha district team are clearly passionate and share an approach: to “plan our work, then work our plan.” As they left the meeting room, O’Hara—who also holds a University of Nebraska MBA—paused at the door and appreciatively smiled at his team’s efforts as they hurried off to resume work.
“Those are good folks. They’re focused professionals. They work hard and they truly do everything they can for folks along the Missouri River Basin,” said O’Hara. “But I know there are a few of the area’s citizenry that simply need someone to blame and sometimes that’s us.”
With a wry chuckle he added, “In spite of three—sometimes action packed—tours in Iraq where my job was to communicate the Corps mission, I believe I was just as much nervous as I ever was over there when recently, enroute to tell flood news, I had to enter the rather hostile environs of a public meeting escorted by a sheriff and deputies!”
O’Hara recalled one stalwart flood survivor who recently said, “‘Into each of our lives a little rain must fall—but why me, now and so blasted much? But … thank goodness for the Corps, ’cause it could have been much, much worse!’ Bless his heart, that was a man who understands!”
– Tommy Clarkson