USACE Team Brings Support During 2023 Flood

Prior to 2023, the last major flood USACE Rock Island District battled was in 2019, a year many in the Quad City area remember vividly due to a temporary barrier failure that caused flood waters to rush into downtown Davenport, Iowa. Although flood fighting appears to be the same process each time, a number of things were done differently this year to improve response and preparedness.

Flooding this spring was primarily caused by melting snowpack in the northern portion of the river basin. It is believed that the last snowmelt-driven flood in the Rock Island District happened in 1965 and was a major flood of record. The flood of 2023 however progressed differently due to drought in the upper Midwest and allowed the predictions for the flood, by the National Weather Service, to be more accurate because no significant rain events needed to be factored in.

“The District had essentially a week to 10 days to prepare for the flood, as predicted.” said Anthony Heddlesten, lead Flood Area Engineer for the Rockford Area, which includes the Quad Cities. “The flood crest prediction was somewhere between 21 and 23 feet at Rock Island and the crest was right in that area.”

According to Heddlesten, several positive outcomes came from the flood fight in 2023. “Every flood is slightly different and all of them are growth opportunities for future planning.”

Bringing in an expert to assist communities with proper installation of the widely used HESCO gabion basket barriers was a major benefit.

Rock Island District Commander Col. Jesse Curry, stands with a team of District Flood Area Engineers (FAEs) along the banks of the Mississippi River as they visited communities during spring flooding. (Photo by Kelcy Hanson)
Rock Island District Commander Col. Jesse Curry, stands with a team of District Flood Area Engineers (FAEs) along the banks of the Mississippi River as they visited communities during spring flooding. (Photo by Kelcy Hanson)

“The HESCO expert immediately hopped right in (literally and figuratively) to help install the temporary barriers correctly and ensure our communities had the best knowledge and layouts to be successful,” said Heddlesten.

The use of new equipment such as inflatable culvert plugs and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was also a big plus.

“Culvert plugs were a huge relief to local sponsors in terms of how much they had to pump,” said Heddlesten. “And using UAV (drones) to see issues from an aerial view, that were not apparent on the ground, was very useful.”

Heddlesten also noted that new technologies played a major role in support of the flood fight this spring.

“The UAVs, used for getting aerial views, had the ability to do thermal imaging, and new electrical resistivity testing equipment helped us search for voids and issues in levee and flood control structures.”

Increased training and improved outreach and communications with communities served also provided a positive outcome during the flood fight this year.

District Flood Area Engineers (FAEs) meet with local levee sponsors to inspect levees and search for concerning boils that might appear further away from the Mississippi river. (Photo by Kelcy Hanson)
District Flood Area Engineers (FAEs) meet with local levee sponsors to inspect levees and search for concerning boils that might appear further away from the Mississippi river. (Photo by Kelcy Hanson)

“USACE had more time to prepare and train new employees this year because of the accurate projection on when flooding would occur,” said Heddlesten. “We also had better engagement with levee districts active in the PL84-99 program and the counties and communities along the river to keep them informed of all the support we could offer.”

Flood fighting isn’t a primary role for most of the flood area engineers in the District but when the Emergency Operations Center activates, those who are properly trained are ready to take on the collateral duty assignment and assist.

According to Sarah Jones, Emergency Management Chief, “our FAEs are successful because they have developed strong relationships with public sponsors through the Continued Eligibility Inspection Program. Their knowledge of the levee system features, local flood fight plans, and flood fight techniques make them invaluable to the levee sponsors and local communities they serve. Many of our flood team members have served for decades. That tells you something about the mission, and their servant hearts. It’s one of my favorite parts about this job.”

When you feel like you’re just walking down the block, your presence as a member of the USACE team brings a level of trust, confidence, a feeling of safety to the people around you, said Heddlesten. “It just really makes you proud to be a part of the team and even though having to respond to a disaster is not something you want to do, it’s a very rewarding experience being able to bring that help to our neighbors.”

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