On an April morning in 1997, the Red River of the North completely flooded East Grand Forks, Minnesota. An hour later, four feet of water covered downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota, where the flood also touched off a fire that spread through three city blocks. The two cities suffered more than $3.6 billion in damages, and more than 50,000 residents had to evacuate.
To prevent a repeat of such utter devastation, the St. Paul District of the Army Corps of Engineers undertook a $450 million flood-control project overseen by Judy DesHarnais. Since its completion in 2007, the project has protected these two cities through three record floods, averting more than $1.25 billion in damage and destruction from the river’s powerful waters.
“There were some huge floods on the Red River in the aughts and early 2010s that really just didn’t register on the radar in Grand Forks,” said Col. Samuel Calkins. “The project really solved that problem for that community.”
The project was one of many major assignments DesHarnais has worked on during a more than three-decade career with the Corps, starting as a structural engineer when few women served in the district, and moving on to team leader, engineering manager and now the district’s top civilian.
She has played a vital role in the conception, design and construction of many critical engineering projects in a district that has undergone a lot of flooding, said Calkins, who called DesHarnais a “respected and sought-after leader.”
Calkins said DesHarnais has worked “city by city and project by project” along the Red, Minnesota, Mississippi and Souris rivers, consulting with communities to make sure the federal government could provide much-needed flood protection.
Michael Bart, the district’s chief of engineering and construction, said, “She brings a depth and breadth of technical, managerial and leadership experience. Sometimes she was the doer. Sometimes she was establishing the teams and creating the climate so they could perform.”
Under DesHarnais’ supervision, the Grand Forks project was one of the nation’s first to use extensive nonstructural flood protection techniques. Rather than building levies and flood walls, the project involved vacating people from the natural flood plain, setting levees back and creating green space for recreation.
“Those are the types of projects that are really hard,” said Aaron Snyder, chief of the district’s Regional Planning and Environmental Division North. “It has led to the economic viability of that region,” and has been shared as an example of a good flood-protection project, he said. “It’s one of the biggest accomplishments within the entire Corps.”
Other communities and organizations, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa; the Mississippi River Commission; and planners from the Netherlands, have consulted with DesHarnais on ways to curb flood disasters while preserving the environment, and to keep from building too close to the river. Along with her technical expertise, DesHarnais excels at advising and empowering employees, leading teams and communicating with entities that must sign on to projects before they can be completed, several district employees said.
“She’s very strategic, she’s very tactical, but she also knows how to take care of her people,” Snyder said.
It takes perseverance to see projects through years of preparation that involve completing studies, obtaining congressional authorization and getting funding even before construction begins. DesHarnais works within both a military and civilian chain of command, and must coordinate projects with local, state, federal and often Canadian authorities.
“Judy’s been able to navigate that as well as anybody,” Snyder said. “She’s done a fantastic job of walking that tightrope, coordinating with political entities, governors and local jurisdictions, while also furthering the mission of the Army Corps.”
Opposing citizen groups are also a factor. For a contentious project on Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, DesHarnais faced objections as she oversaw work to prevent catastrophic downstream damage in the event of an overflow.
Next is a $2.1 billion project to protect more than 235,000 people in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, an initiative DesHarnais helped develop and champion. It is the first public-private partnership in the Army Corps of Engineers’ history. Taking advantage of private-sector technical expertise is expected to reduce the cost to national taxpayers by $400 million dollars and cut the project time by more than 50 percent compared with traditional approaches.
DesHarnais, a former Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, derives satisfaction from public service. “We are doing something to benefit the nation,” she said. “They’re good projects and really make a different in people’s lives.”