Civil Engineers – the Unsung Heroes!

In light of the recent heavy rains we’ve experienced here in Tennessee, I thought it appropriate to give a shout out to our civil engineering staff whose areas of practice include flood control. Civil engineers impact the lives of everyone in some way. Much of what they do goes unnoticed by the general public until something goes wrong. It can happen in just a second.

A pretty meandering stream can change into a raging torrent, a wall of destruction powerful enough to destroy everything in its path. Flood waters leave a trail of destruction and can cause billions of dollars in damage. Every year communities in just about every corner of the world are devastated by catastrophic flooding. Coastal regions are prone to destruction at the historic levels of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Florence, and Hurricane Katrina. Civil engineering is the oldest engineering discipline. It deals with the built environment and can be dated to the first time someone placed a roof over his or her head or laid a tree trunk across a river to make it easier to get across. Flood control has been practiced since ancient times with methods such as reforestation, and the construction of levees, dams, reservoirs, and channels diverting floodwater, called floodways.

A great example of this are the ancient Chinese who used levees to raise the banks of the Yellow River to protect nearby communities. As cities grow, floods become more frequent because urban infrastructure cannot accommodate the drainage needs of land that is paved. Flat, highly developed areas like Houston, Texas leave water with nowhere to go. The predicted rise in sea levels jeopardizes streets, buildings, and subway tunnels in coastal cities like Manhattan. Moreover, aging dams and levees are prone to failure, leading to the kind of devastation that New Orleans saw after Hurricane Katrina. Civil engineers play a vital role in protecting communities from the impacts of flooding, which can happen in coastal areas caused by the oceans, or inland caused by rivers, waterways or from surface water or groundwater. Flood risk management is accomplished by extensive research and planning as well as the actual infrastructure that controls water levels. “Hard” infrastructure features include dams, embankments, barriers and gates, pumping stations, sea walls, and diversion channels.

Drainage networks are also important in preventing flooding, especially in towns and cities, by effectively collecting and removing storm water and other surface run-off. In coastal areas, effective beach management is important in managing flood risk, as a healthy beach can absorb wave energy, reduce wave overtopping, and ultimately protect any hard structures present behind the beach.

Civil engineers are closely involved in the design, construction, and maintenance of all of these structures. “Soft” engineering techniques such as beach nourishment, saltmarsh restoration and managed retreats are also important in understanding and controlling the flow of rivers, other waterways, and the ocean. Civil engineers predict and model flood risk using their knowledge and expertise in a number of areas – including hydrology and hydraulic flow, sediment transport, wave, tidal and current dynamics, coastal processes and geomorphology. They work with the environment to create natural attenuation and storage in upper zones of catchments to protect downstream communities from flooding. Natural attenuation in upland rural areas using farmland and green spaces alongside climate adaptation solutions is becoming more prevalent in the search for long-term sustainable solutions. In addition to investing to protect homes, businesses, and infrastructure, there is also a need to deliver an effective flood management program. This involves the monitoring, forecasting and warning for floods and the organization of emergency response including the deployment of temporary flood defenses and the ability to make rapid emergency repairs. Depending on the type of organization that employs the civil engineer – a number of skills and specializations are utilized:

  • Preparation of flood control designs
  • Design and development of flood control structures
  • Community engagement, feasibility, and option analysis Hydrological and hydraulic analysis and modeling
  • Environmental enhancement and mitigation
  • Preparing construction documents
  • Public consultation and presentation
  • Cost estimates and profiling
  • Programming
  • Risk management
  • Contract management
  • Root cause analysis and problem solving

Creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority In response to continued flooding in the Tennessee Valley, one of the most famous and successful projects created by the Federal government during the Great Depression was the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up many new projects and agencies to help the hardest hit areas of the United States. One such agency was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created in 1933.

The Tennessee River Valley was continually dealing with floods, deforestation, and eroded land. The TVA wanted to help reduce these problems by teaching better farming methods, replanting trees, and building dams. This agency was also important because it generated and sold surplus electricity, created jobs, and conserved water power. The TVA was a great success almost from the beginning and helped ease some of the economic hardship not only in the state of Tennessee, but also in parts of Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. TVA’s success continues to this day.

Too often the work that civil engineers do doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. We want to take this opportunity to thank them for the many conveniences of modern life that they provide such as flood control, dams, bridges, roads, clean drinking water, and flushing toilets!

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