Three men surveying the landscape.

Restoring infrastructure to rebuild lives

CSE alumnus reflects on his Hurricane Harvey-recovery efforts

When the flood waters recede, Kenton Spading (Civil Engineering ’84) comes to town. Spading, a hydrologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, helped communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The storm dropped torrential rain on Texas coastal cities in August 2017. Four feet of water fell in Houston. A record-setting five feet dropped on towns east of the Louisiana border. Floods wiped out cotton fields, shut down oil refineries, and inundated hundreds of thousands of homes.

Three months after the deluge, the Corps sent Spading to inspect the damage to public infrastructure. He assessed roads, culverts, parks, public buildings, and schools. One focus was water and sewage systems.

“Eight hundred towns in Texas were without sewer or water after the hurricane,” said Spading, who lived and worked out of Beaumont, Texas for two months. “Almost 600 towns were still being advised to boil water as of Thanksgiving. We’d go out and say, ‘Show us your damage.’ And they’d say, ‘Here’s where the [water treatment plant] was.”

Spading has a lot of experience helping rebuild after floods.

After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the Army Corps sent him to Florida, where he identified sites to set up mobile homes and met families living in the backs of their cars. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he headed to Mississippi to reopen courthouses so flooded homeowners could access property titles and apply for loans to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team brought in refrigerated trucks to freeze records and prevent mold until the documents could be salvaged.

From 2008 to 2011, Spading lived one week each month in New Orleans, managing construction of a section of the flood wall that Congress voted to build around the city. The system has already kept out one storm, he said, but it won’t protect against a big one.

Swampy terrain and flood-prone cities

In Texas this past year, he supervised a team for the FEMA public assistance program, which distributes federal money to local governments and tribes to rebuild following a Presidential disaster declaration. His team took photographs and submitted reports that were used to determine eligible projects and cost estimates. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the federal government is paying for 90 percent of reconstruction.

Spading’s team also documented ways to reduce damage in future storms by diverting water or putting in levees. Another suggestion? Replace existing sewage pumps with submersible pumps that can run underwater.

“There isn’t enough slope in the land to have gravity flow for the sewers,” Spading explained.

So everything is pumped—pumped to the street, then pumped down the block. A small town will have 500 pumps or more, and when you get that much rain water, all those pumps burn out and the entire system goes down.”

The Texas eastern coast will always be flood prone, he said. It’s the consequence of flat and swampy terrain that traces its origins to ancient geology. When the glaciers melted they created a massive river flowing south.

“It spread out across Texas and Mississippi, and Louisiana and created a monster delta,” said Spading.

“From Corpus Christi, Texas, all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi, that’s one, huge ancient river delta, full of muck and mud," he added. “You’ve got Houston and all these cities sitting on top of that. That’s the challenge.”

This past October, Spading  was deployed to FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama, for additional training. In November, he was deployed for two to three months to the FEMA field office in Durham, North Carolina, to manage a portion of the recovery for Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

A lifetime of helping others

After working for the Corps in St. Paul for 30 years, Spading officially retired in 2015.

For the past three summers, he’s advised students in the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment’s multidisciplinary Acara program and traveled with them to India for a three-week course in sustainable development. He also joined a Corps cadre of retired employees who are hired for specific projects. In that capacity, he was tapped to be lead project manager for the Environmental Impact Statement and the Corps’ Clean Water Act wetland permit review of the PolyMet NorthMet copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota.

Spading says he was glad to be sent to Texas, where his skills could help people. He recalled one person who invited his team over to chat. Without sewer and water service, the family was using an outdoor portable toilet and sterilizing water on the stove because buying bottled water had become too expensive.

“This guy was trying to dry out family photos on his dining room table, and scraps of memorabilia he’d saved from the flood,” said Spading. “Meanwhile the place where he worked had been under five feet of water. So, he was also looking for a new job.” Restoring infrastructure helps rebuild lives. “I really, really adore that kind of work,” he said.

Story by Maja Beckstrom

To read about CSE alumnus Jay Axness and his experiences with Hurricane Harvey, visit our online story "Addressing a different sense of urgency."

To read about CSE alumnus Ruben Otero De Leon's memories of Hurricane Maria, visit our online story "Puerto Rico flashback."