As a sweeper playing defense on North Carolina State University’s soccer team, Lewis E. “Ed” Link Jr. had a knack for pattern recognition and teamwork. “I could anticipate. I could see the pattern, the big picture, and go to where the ball was going to be,” he says. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America thought he had a special talent, too: It named him an All-American in 1967, his senior year.
His success on the field, Link says, came from playing with the strengths he had, rather than from trying to shape his style after an inappropriate model—like some hulking defender. At 160 lb and 5 ft, 7 in. tall, Link’s strong suit was not physical intimidation, although he still calls his college fighting weight “just right.” Rather, Link’s skill came from using speed and an unusual, out-of-the-box way of looking at things that helped him to visualize the larger patterns in unfolding events, as well as to imagine optimal solutions and contribute opportunities to the team. “Small is relative when your fundamental job is breaking up what some ultra-skilled opponent is trying to do,” he says.
Forty years later, Link still is playing at the high level he did at the university in Raleigh. And he still is acclaimed as a visionary and a team player. But he now plays All-American in the world of engineering research, strategic planning and policy evolution. Link still is known as having a knack for seeing patterns in significant ways and for building teams of the highest order in which the strengths of individuals are multiplied through dynamic cooperation.
Link also continues to zero in on the biggest challenges. His most recent mission was leading the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force (IPET) commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers. It performed an intensive technical analysis of the performance of the Southeast Louisiana flood-protection system during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The crash project, intended to be as objective and critical as it was thorough and visionary, delivered an immensely credible and valuable result. Its stream of design recommendations helped rebuilders as they struggled to restore defenses before another storm swept in and its conclusions will have an even greater impact.
"Risk-based design and decision support is a big step forward. It is a big opportunity. If we can carry through and institutionalize it as a common decision support practice, it will facilitate that cultural change the Corps wants to go through. It’s a good tool for doing that." — Ed Link.
As the IPET project wraps up, Link now is shifting to a new mission that builds off some of the new work. He is championing an effort to modify federal water-resources project-evaluation criteria from the current overwhelming reliance on cost/benefit justification to policies that endorse scientifically based planning for risk reduction.
For his masterful leadership of the far-ranging IPET project, and for the strength of his visionary work going forward, the editors of Engineering News-Record have chosen Ed Link as the recipient of the Award of Excellence.
If the effort to expand the application of risk-based project-evaluation criteria succeeds by giving policymakers the tools they need to correctly gauge risk and assign risk-mitigation techniques more weight in planning decisions, the impact could be huge. IPET could change the way the nation prioritizes investment in civil works to defend against natural hazards of all kinds—not only hurricanes, but seismic risk, rising sea levels and the effects of climate change.
Risk-based planning could help policymakers choose investments more wisely. But the main benefit would be to allow them to comprehend and communicate an understanding of the actual levels of risk people face, almost on a house-by-house basis, in coastal cities and flood plains. By understanding risk and by being able to quantify how much any proposed structural change would reduce it, planners could systematically and effectively buy it down.
Playing the Game
As the IPET project demonstrated, Link still goes at challenges like a sweeper on the soccer field. The action never ends, and the opportunities to turn a play can arise at any time.
Link meets regularly with leaders of the Corps in Washington, D.C., to keep them advised about findings and progress.
On a recent afternoon, heading to a meeting in the Corps of Engineers’ cavernous headquarters in Washington, D.C., a senior economist spotted Link and pulled him over to describe language being drafted for a Senate committee preparing the next Water Resources Development Act. The legislation provides authorization and policy guidelines that govern most of the Corps’ planning for civil works.
Link listened closely to the enthusiastic presentation. But when he found it was missing language to add risk reduction to the decision support criteria, he waited for the economist to take a breath and lodged a suggestion. The fast-thinking economist flung it back as being too late to add and then moved on to other ideas. But each time Link saw an opening, he popped his suggestion in again, gradually building the argument until the economist finally came around. Link had scored. The economist left with plans to offer phrasing, which, if it becomes part of the WRDA bill, could codify new policy in water-resource project authorization and change criteria the Corps is required to follow when recommending flood-protection projects for authorization.
With Brittaney (center) and Maggie, Link ends a hike in Maryland.
The risk-based evaluation methodology Link has been promoting dovetails with a call by the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, to raise the emphasis of risk mitigation in agency planning. Explicit federal policy incorporating risk in decision support criteria would give it the weight of law.
“That was soccer,” Link says, analyzing the conversation with the economist, the result of which could well contribute to a significant change in federal policy. And like soccer, he had advanced his effort by staying focused, seizing opportunities and adjusting his argument dynamically, rather than relying on some pre-planned campaign. “Having a set plan…that would have been football,” he laughs.
Strock commissioned the IPET project to generate a stream of technical evaluations on the performance of the levees, gates, pumps, canals and floodwalls that shielded New Orleans. Engineers rebuilding the ravaged protections badly needed the input to avoid recreating a flawed system. Designers in the repair blitz had to understand exactly how hundreds of elements of the 350-mile system had performed, why many were overwhelmed by surge and why some melted away while others held.
Strock decided that a similar investigation into decades of policy and decisionmaking that set up New Orleans for the disaster in the first place should...