In light of the tragic Hawaii wildfires that swept through the town of Lāhainā, Hawaii, on Aug. 8, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies in responding to calls for assistance.
As soon as Aug. 11, a USACE Planning and Response Team – or Temporary Emergency Power Team – landed on the island and began work in conjunction with FEMA and Maui County, and state officials. Their mission – position generators across the hard hit region and getting electricity flowing to the communities and to restart the wells that provide water throughout the area.
The 15-member team, made up entirely of USACE volunteers, set up shop on a windswept dirt and asphalt field near the Maui Raceway Park and immediately went to work. Maintaining a night and day shift, the team pushed to get the generators up and running as soon as possible, and by Aug. 21, had completed 17 of 18 generator installations.
The power team recently had another important task added to their to-do list. On Aug. 21, President Joe Biden visited Lāhainā to meet with affected citizens and leaders to assure them that support would continue.
“The PRT was responsible for providing and maintaining power during President Biden’s visit to the community,” said Dominic Basile, temporary emergency power national manager for. “It was critical to ensure the generator continued to operate and maintain electricity for everything from lighting at the civic center, to metal detectors and computers used by the Secret Service.”
And the team’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Following Biden’s visit, the White House Communications Agency presented the team with a certificate of appreciation.
It reads in part, “The member of the White House Communications Agency wish to express our sincere appreciation for the outstanding manner in which you provided support to the President of the United States … Your efforts, coupled with your superb attitude and impeccable professionalism, enabled us to provide critical communications for the President, the White House Staff and the United States Secret Service.”
Madeline Martinez, planning and response team mission manager, said that this group of USACE professionals is the only team to have ever received this award. But as team leader, she was quick to defer praise.
“It’s all the team,” said Martinez. “This group of volunteers – they are all excellent at their jobs. I couldn’t do any of this without each of them.”
In the past, residents of Hamilton City eyed the Sacramento River with uneasy wariness when facing a series of major rainstorms. Now, they can sleep a little more soundly, knowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District has helped reduce the likeliness of flooding.
Located 90 minutes north of Sacramento, Hamilton City has always been prone to flooding due to its location along the Sacramento River and reliance on an undersized stretch of earthen barrier called the J Levee. For decades, this non-engineered levee was the town’s only protection from the mighty Sacramento River.
In fact, the community has had to fight to stave off inundation during several extreme weather events, participating in extensive flood fighting efforts in 1983, 1986, 1995, 1997, and 1998 to avoid levee failure. The town’s residents have also had to evacuate six times in the past 20 years.
With this year’s relentless atmospheric rivers dropping record amounts of rain and snow, it’s likely Hamilton City would have faced a major catastrophe, but the worn out J Levee is gone, and a $93 million levee and restoration project now stands in its place.
It’s called the Hamilton City Flood Damage Reduction and Ecosystem Restoration project, and it’s the first of its kind in the nation. The project provides improved flood risk management and greater levee stability by widening the river channel during high water events. This will also help the river reconnect to the natural floodplain and restore approximately 1,400 acres of native habitat between the levee and the Sacramento River.
Margaret Engesser, project manager for the Hamilton City levee and restoration project, explained what makes the Hamilton City project exceptional.
“What makes it unique is that it’s one of the Corps’ first multipurpose projects, authorized for the purposes of flood risk management and ecosystem restoration,” said Engesser. “It includes 6.8 miles of setback levee that not only provides much-needed flood protection for Hamilton City but also restores nearly 1,400 acres of native riparian habitat.”
Instead of placing a levee right along the edge of a river, a setback levee is built away from the water, allowing the river to overflow its banks and fill in a large area of land before reaching the bank of the levee.
“It is performing exactly as it was intended to. The river spilled over the banks and into the floodplain up to the levee, and everything held secure,” said Engesser. “The project is a testament to the planning and execution of the Sacramento District and the local sponsor.”