WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a mission that could be called thrilling, it is disaster response. Nothing except perhaps declared war generates as much national interest, or contains so much human drama.
Now there is a book that details the early history of the USACE disaster mission, and captures that drama. On March 23 the Office of History officially released Situation Desperate: U.S. Army Engineer Disaster Relief Operations, Origins to 1950 during a ceremony in the Executive Foyer in Headquarters. Anyone wanting copies can obtain them free from the Office of History by contacting Matt Pearcy, senior historian, who managed this book project.
The author is Leland Johnson, a freelance historical writer and researcher. He has published more than 40 books, about half of them for USACE. But Situation Desperate is much more than a dry recitation of facts and dates. It also captures the human element of disaster response, beginning with the title.
"The most exciting thing about the book is what people said during these emergencies, which was sometimes shocking and tantalizing, and sometimes real sharp," Johnson said. "The editors pulled those quotes and highlighted them, and one of them came from Capt. Dan Kingman during the Mississippi River flood of 1890.
"At the time, there was no federal disaster policy," Johnson said. "If there was a disaster, Congress had to vote an appropriation for relief. Pleas for help were pouring into Washington from the Mississippi River Valley during April, 1890, and the House Committee on Appropriations requested damage reports from state governors and USACE commanders. Kingman commanded the Fourth Mississippi River Commission District, now New Orleans District. He sent a blunt telegram saying, 'Suffering universal. It is beyond the power of the state to make any provision for such widespread calamity. Situation is desperate.' So that became the book's title."
Situation Desperate begins with the first federal disaster assistance, which was aid given in 1812 to Venezuela after an earthquake. It traces the evolution of the mission through several more early emergencies until the Corps' first official disaster mission in 1882 during a Mississippi River flood.
The book then chronicles the Corps' disaster response until 1950 when Congress passed the Disaster Relief Act. It is illustrated with dozens of dramatic action photos dating to the earliest days of photography, many never before published.
Johnson could include such visceral details because he had excellent sources.
"Normally it takes me about 18 months to write a book, and that's what it took this time," Johnson said. "It was pretty easy, in fact, because all of those after action reports, hundreds of them since the Civil War, were in files in the Emergency Operations and Hydrologic Engineering Branch. There was a file cabinet full of them. They let me go in there and go through them, and it was a treasure trove of history for this subject. It was wonderful!"
Of course, it will take more than one book to tell the story of USACE disaster response.
"The Office of History is talking with Leland about writing a sequel to the current volume that will continue the history of the Corps' disaster response from 1950 to the present," Pearcy said.
Johnson expects that the sequel will not be as easy to write as the original.
"The most exciting thing about this book is not what I wrote, but what people said," Johnson said. "The problem that I have looking at more recent times is that our after action reports now tend to be by the number, by the bullets, and there is not much said that is interesting.
"If I'm going to get interesting quotes, I have to interview people who have been in emergency operations," Johnson said. "So if there is anyone in USACE who has been in an emergency operation and wants to talk about it, the Office of History would like to hear from them. I'd like to talk to people who were in Hurricane Katrina. I'd like to talk to Maj. Gen. Mike Walsh about blowing the Birds Point New Madrid Floodway last year. Maybe when he retires he'll do an interview with the Office of History that I can use in my next book."