Aerial view of Southport Levee and surrounding neighborhoods in West Sacramento, Califnornia.

Setting the Standard: HDR Helps Pioneer First-Ever National Levee Safety Guidelines

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, causing levee failures that resulted in hundreds of deaths and catastrophic damages to property and vital infrastructure. Almost 2,000 people lost their lives and millions were uprooted or left homeless along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. In the years that followed, local, state and federal stakeholders sought improved processes and standards to better prepare for similar storms. These efforts built on over 80 years of national level studies on how to protect people and property from floods and better manage levee systems. The recommendations from multifaceted stakeholder groups were clear: the nation needed a national levee safety program.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency developed a framework for the National Levee Safety Program, which included a set of national guidelines for the design, operations and maintenance of levee systems. The first-of-their-kind guidelines are a resource of best practices to help achieve nationwide consistency in improving the reliability of levees and increasing community resilience in areas behind levees. The intent of the guidelines is for:

  • Levee owners to access best practices for all phases of a levee’s life.
  • Local officials and communities to manage levee risks within broader flood and emergency management contexts.
  • The private sector to have a reference document for levee-related activities.
  • Federal, state, regional and tribal organizations to align their levee safety programs.

We have worked alongside USACE and FEMA on the program since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Beginning in 2021, HDR, together with our joint venture partner, was selected to lead technical content development of 4 of the 12 chapters of the guidelines. In addition, our team of strategic communications, graphic artists and publication experts were trusted to create this highly anticipated publication and the supplemental resources. Today, a draft of the National Levee Safety Guidelines is complete and available for public comment until July 31, 2024.

In addition, our team helped USACE in reimagining the National Levee Database and National Inventory of Dams. This effort helped improve the functionality of both systems, making these two vital inventories of dam and levee information more intuitive, user-friendly and informative.

There are over 6,800 levee systems in the U.S., and approximately 23 million people live behind levees totaling more than $2 trillion in infrastructure and property value. The National Levee Safety Guidelines are an important step toward achieving the National Levee Safety Program vision of an involved public and reliable levee systems working as part of an integrated approach to protect people and property from floods.

"HDR's culture of collaboration has fostered strong partnerships with entities like USACE, FEMA and our joint venture partner, Schnabel, showcasing the power of diverse talents working together to drive innovation and push boundaries to elevate our communities and make great things possible,” said Elena Sossenkina, HDR's levee practice lead. “Congratulations to our partners, leading engineers, strategic communications and creative professionals, and the entire guidelines management team on a job well done!"