During a three-decade career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Joseph Seebode has played a major leadership role on a host of important public works projects that have improved public safety, navigation, the economy and the environment.
As the deputy district engineer, Seebode oversaw recovery efforts from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and managed the recently completed, $2.1 billion dredging project to deepen the waterways that feed into the Port of New York and New Jersey. He also was the primary Army Corps leader who coordinated emergency response actions and infrastructure rebuilding with New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Joe Seebode’s oversight and management—his steady hand—has been crucial to the success we have had with all of these projects,” said Col. David Caldwell, the Corps’ New York District commander. “He keeps people focused on the right things.”
That focus has meant keeping many balls in the air on a day-to-day basis and working closely with states and cities affected by the various projects as well as federal agencies, environmental and civic groups, and Congress.
“He is someone people trust and respect,” said Joseph Westphal, who, as undersecretary of the Army from 2009 to 2012, headed up the Army Corps when the massive port project was underway. “To me, he is the epitome of what a public servant is. He is dedicated, committed and hardworking, and has no political agenda of any kind.”
The $2.1 billion, decade-long port project, the largest channel-deepening effort ever undertaken by the Corps, was completed on schedule in 2016 and under budget by $800 million. A complex and challenging initiative, it was made even more demanding by a goal to complete it simultaneously with the widening and deepening of the Panama Canal so the largest container ships could pull into the New York and New Jersey ports.
The shipping lanes, which were 18 feet deep 400 years ago when Henry Hudson first sailed along them, and 35 feet deep after dredging during the 20th century, are now 50 feet deep in all of the major navigation channels that feed into the large container ports of the bi-state area.
Seebode worked closely with environmental groups and public agencies to mitigate adverse impacts and provide ecological benefits. The project reused 100 percent of the 54 million cubic yards of dredged material for environmental and economic purposes.
Seebode said the project was challenging because “a lot of the material we were dredging was contaminated, so we had to come up with a strategy to remove it without affecting the greater environment, while also having reasonable opportunities to put this material in places where it would still benefit society.”
He added, “If you were standing on a football field, the amount of material we removed would have stretched five miles high.” His teams used that material to create wetland islands and fishing reefs; stabilize shorelines and close landfills; and provide subgrade material under parking lots, Seebode said.
“His ability to get the environmental community to support what we were doing was key to our ability to get this project done,” said Richard Larrabee, a former Coast Guard admiral and retired director of the port commerce at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “Had it not been for Joe’s knowledge of the environmental challenges and innovative ways of solving those, we would still be out there fighting with people.”
Seebode and his team sought to be transparent with the public, working to mitigate the effects of the harbor-deepening project on local citizens by holding public forums, visiting homes prior to blasting and requiring horns to communicate when blasts would be taking place.
While the port project was underway, Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012 and devastated the greater New York-New Jersey region. Seebode temporarily left the dredging project to work with the mayor of New York City, the governors of New York and New Jersey and major agency heads to lead a $3.2 billion effort to repair, restore and increase coastal resilience in the bi-state region.
This work included clearing shipping channels to help the Port of New York and New Jersey reopen, closing barrier island breaches on Long Island, and assessing damages to federally authorized and constructed shoreline projects.
Earlier in his career, Seebode was selected by the Corps to lead a response team after the 9/11 terrorist attack, working directly with the city of New York to help with the recovery.
Even though he had been in the World Trade Center the day of the attack and escaped after the second plane hit, he was back the next day to manage search and rescue teams, debris management groups and emergency dredging operations. He was awarded the Army Corps of Engineers’ Civilian of the Year Award for his actions.
“We have a lot of regulation and administrative hurdles, but my focus is always to move the approval process forward as quickly as possible so we can get the money to the street and break ground,” Seebode said. “That is ultimately what the American people are paying us to do—to build infrastructure that is going to have value to our soldiers and our citizens.”