Rural counties like Jasper County lack the resources for large-scale constructions projects when storms like Hurricane Laura cause damage to critical infrastructure within the watershed. NRCS's EWP program provides a lifeline for these local communities to recover.
Story and photos compiled by Adele Swearingen, Public Affairs Specialist, Bryan, TX
The long stretch of dirt road in Jasper County, just inland from the Gulf coast near the Louisiana border, may not look like it is well traveled, but it leads to an isolated rural community whose members use it to get to their destinations and back home.
“Typically, these county roads will only have a handful of people who live down them and use them,” says Ryan Nelson, a civil engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “But just because fewer people live on these roads doesn't mean they can be neglected,” he said.
“They use them every day. It’s their life. They must get out, they must get in, they go to work to make a living. So, it’s super important that we do a good job [of maintaining this lifeline] for those people.”
Places like Jasper County lack the resources for full-time engineers, or large-scale, countywide construction projects. If an intense storm causes widespread flood damage to roadway system, the county can’t get the money to fix it, meaning people who depend on that road are in danger of being cut off. During natural disasters, that danger is increased tremendously. That is exactly what happened when Hurricane Laura swept through the county back in August 2020, bringing 60-mile an hour winds, snapping trees, knocking down power lines and flooding the area with a three-foot storm surge along with significant rainfall.
An abundance of water
The abundance of waterways surrounding Jasper County is considered a blessing by the folks who live in the area, but when those waterways run out of control, they can pose a threat to lives and property. That’s where the commissioners of Jasper County turn to the resources of the USDA NRCS. Specifically, they use one program designed for places like Jasper.
“The Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program is basically a federal emergency disaster response program,” Nelson said. “NRCS teams up with local and community governments to address threats to life or property when it has to do with watersheds and how they impact, erode, or cause damage to infrastructure.”
NRCS has been doing business with Jasper County for decades at this point. Nelson’s first experience as part of the program came in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005. NRCS aid has been there for Jasper County throughout many storms, including Hurricanes Harvey and Laura. It also includes support for flooding from rainstorms that don’t get names. This has been a huge help for Jasper County, said Nelson, since the county has limited staff. They’re also a county that’s uniquely diverse in its landscape.
Seth Martindale, who serves as Commissioner for Jasper County’s first precinct, said the map of Jasper County shows a landscape that is very narrow and long.
“We have various terrains here. We go from very hilly to very flat, low ground the farther south you get. So, the different dynamics that we have to face, as far as what we deal with in my precinct versus the others, is completely different areas,” he said.
Given that variability, having adaptable partners is key. That’s part of the reason the county’s relationship with NRCS is successful. The only agencies involved on the ground when it comes to addressing watershed damage is NRCS and the local government. Even in the wake of disaster, with numerous concerns to be addressed, the streamlined process benefits small governmental organizations.
How the EWP program works
After a disaster affects a road or other vital infrastructure, Jasper County quickly contacts NRCS, where engineers are dispatched to determine program eligibility, complete the damage reports, and begin putting together a plan to address the issues.
Nelson said NRCS takes on engineering services for Jasper County through the EWP program. “We do the surveys, the engineering designs, we do all the contract specifications, and we write the contract for the project and put it out for bid. And then during construction, we do contract inspection and all that good stuff that goes along with construction,” he said.
Following the storm and subsequent flooding caused by Hurricane Laura in August, Nelson and a team of NRCS engineers and planners sprung to work. They finished their reports by October and the EWP program managers had funding ready to go for Jasper County by January.
“At that point, it’s my job and the other engineers’ jobs to team up and come out, do the surveys of each site, which is painstaking work, and then we do all the design work,” Nelson laughs. “I believe the designs were completed and signed off on by April 2021, so six months or so after the hurricane.” He estimates that a project of this scale would typically take years to get to that same point in a non-emergency setting.
Partnerships make the difference
The things the NRCS team can accomplish with EWP are even more remarkable given the fact that everyone involved is taking time away from their primary job duties within NRCS to tackle these problems for places like Jasper County. They bring their expertise to bear when the need is greatest.
“We do many different practices on sites like this,” says Nelson. For example, they use rock riprap armoring—a blanket of one to two-foot boulders used to protect the roadside slopes, and either timber headwalls or concrete bag headwalls to protect the roadside slopes around culverts.
Martindale said he, the other county commissioners, and the citizens of Jasper County appreciate the EWP program and the work being done by NRCS.
“Working with NRCS has been probably the easiest thing I’ve done all year,” says Martindale. “They’re very hands-on, they’re very cordial, kind to work with. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a job like mine sometimes a little bit of kindness goes a long way.”