Doug Bellomo is a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Institute for Water Resources in Fort Belvoir, Va. (and a member of the CRC Advisory Board). He helps lead the Corps National Flood Risk Management program and works within the USACE Levee Safety Program and on coastal activities. In these capacities, he seeks to develop and implement policies and business practices to better integrate USACE activities across the flood risk management life cycle and to promote shared responsibility for flood risk. He spoke to the Coastal Resilience Center about how his work and the Center’s work complement one another.
CRC: Can you tell us a little about your current position at the Army Corps Institute for Water Resources and about how your career led to this point?
Bellomo: I’m currently senior technical advisor for flood risk management. The Institute plays an interesting role within the Corps, not necessarily as an operational organization but one that looks out to the future and helps try and identify challenges and opportunities. Those include integrating water missions in the Corps including recreation, dam operation, flood risk reduction, infrastructure, hydropower operation, and navigation, among others.
I’m helping in a variety of areas, including levee safety and dam safety – we’re the owner and operator of 715 dams. Another area is policy development: There was an executive order that was released in January 2015, and I’m helping USACE headquarters in developing draft procedures for implementing it.
I work with a broader team on the National Flood Risk Management Program, which includes Silver Jackets – a program within the Corps where we use our convening power to pull together state and other federal agencies to form teams to tackle flood risk-related challenges. The states really make and carry the agenda and we help facilitate and provide some technical support where we can.
I have a bachelor’s of science degree in civil engineering and a master’s of science degree in civil engineering, and my thesis was on the impact of seawalls on beaches in 1992-93. After I got out of graduate school I got a job in the private sector. I worked there for about four years and then joined FEMA, where I stayed for about 18 years. As Director of the Risk Analysis Division, I had the pleasure of working with great professionals and oversaw the development of maps for the National Flood Insurance Program. I chaired the National Dam Safety Review Board and Interagency Committee on Dam Safety, and oversaw implementation of the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Planning function, HAZUS and other activities.
CRC: Are there any larger issues, either thematically or regionally, where your work focuses? Are there trends in what you’re focusing on now more so than when you started?
Bellomo: One of the things I’m focused on is the National Flood Risk Management Program within the Corps, which was established about seven years ago. It came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina and some lessons learned there. I wasn’t at the Corps at the time, but we pulled an interdisciplinary team together to look at the underpinnings of that program and compare them to today’s best practices.
Our country’s a pretty diverse place and to some degree flooding is like politics – they’re both very local. There are commonalities at the national scale but the specific situations can be very different. You’ve got flooding in coastal environments, you’ve got urban stormwater challenges, you’ve got riverine flooding, alluvial fans, ice jams, the way infrastructure performs in terms of dams and levees. All of this makes for a very diverse, challenging environment to really manage risks in a way that’s open and transparent. I don’t necessarily focus on any given geography or type of flooding, but really on the broader flood risk management framework.
Our country’s a pretty diverse place and to some degree flooding is like politics – they’re both very local.
CRC: Can you give an overview about how the flood risk management lifecycle works and how the Army Corps of Engineers is involved in that lifecycle?
Bellomo: There’s some different schools of thought on cycles and lifecycles. There’s a traditional risk management lifecycle, in which the application of flooding is fairly straightforward. You identify the flood hazards, and you analyze the risks that those hazards pose. In other words, what kind of damage can they do to things of value directly and indirectly? You can think of buildings, roads, bridges, infrastructure, but you can also think of the damage they do from a social perspective in terms of the cohesiveness of communities as well as the damage they can do to the environment – particularly when wastewater treatment plants are damaged or other chemicals end up in the water during floods.
You analyze those risks, you identify the threats to things of value for you whoever you are – a community, state, even an individual business owner – and then you develop plans to manage and communicate those risks to the people who need to know and the decision-makers who are going to make investments in helping manage it. Then you take action – or don’t take action – and then you start over. There’s a general risk management cycle that isn’t necessarily unique to flooding but is applied definitely within the Corps.
There’s also an emergency management framework or cycle. You’ve got the preparedness and mitigation phases and you’ve got the response and recovery phases. And a lot of times the opportunity to act and change your risk profile is more pronounced in the post-disaster environment. People tend to be more receptive to doing things differently after they’ve experienced a loss, but the window can close quickly as the demand to get things back to normal rises.
The Corps has a couple of roles within the disaster cycle. FEMA will pull the Corps in for assisting in response – life safety-type measures as the event is unfolding – but also in recovery. The National Disaster Recovery Framework has the Corps playing the role of coordinator for the infrastructure systems recovery support function.
There’s also this concept of resilience, and inside the Corps we have a team that has created a roadmap for resilience. The basic concepts of resilience are very helpful from a risk management lifecycle perspective. You can take actions to better absorb the impact of flooding. You can take actions to help you recover more quickly from flooding. You need to pay attention to adaptive techniques. Sea-level rise highlights the need for adaptive capacity and as a risk manager, it’s important to contemplate what it might mean to change based on new realities. And then there’s preparing and planning to make sure you’re ready for the predictable surprises.
CRC: Has Hurricane Matthew and its impacts on the Southeast led to any unique observations or learning opportunities?
Bellomo: I’m sure they’ll emerge. Matthew was a very interesting event; they all seem to be interesting. Each flood seems to have some unique characteristics, and you learn a little bit from each one. Matthew clearly spread out as it made its way up the coast and while it eroded quite a few beaches and there may be some work from an Army Corps perspective to deal with the erosion that occurred, as it continued unfolding in North Carolina it caused a lot of interior flooding. I’m sure there will be lessons, some perhaps we should have learned years ago, but others that may be new.
Sea-level rise highlights the need for adaptive capacity and as a risk manager, it’s important to contemplate what it might mean to change based on new realities.
CRC: With our projects, several of which deal with coastal mitigation or storm modeling, how do you feel about the work being done by the Coastal Resilience Center and how does that address the things that you are concerned about professionally?
Bellomo: I don’t do as much flood map drawing as I used to but the Corps does. I’m still very much involved in flood risk management issues, including coastal flood risk management. The projects that the CRC is undertaking address a lot of the challenges we’re facing as a nation; specifically, the tools for improving decision-making, the projects that are involved in improving flood damage estimates and coastal flood hazards. You have the ADCIRC modeling and project focused on better understanding combined storm surge and inland flooding events.
A few years ago in South Carolina, with the historic rainfall and flooding that occurred as a result – along with Hurricane Matthew – you had combinations of surge and rainfall coming together. Some of the projects are oriented around risk communication, another big challenge I think as a combined government – federal, state and local – I think uniting our messages is important. I think we do very well as a team when it comes to messaging during response but I’m not sure our peacetime messages are as crisp as they could be in terms of motivating people to take action prior to events emerging.
So many educational projects, in terms of equipping the next generation of thought leaders in regards to flood risk management, I think are great. I really think many of the projects are really hitting on some of the bigger challenges we face today so I’m excited to play a part and am continuing draw attention to them within the USACE as they move forward.