By: Laurie Driver
During most of his 29 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, PJ Spaul was the voice and face of Little Rock District. Sure, he crafted news releases, speeches and public affairs plans. He helped at public events, and even launched an employee newspaper. Yet most people remember him explaining Corps activities in the news media.
During his career, which spanned from 1983 until his retirement in 2012, he responded to reporters’ questions more than 5,000 times. However, in June 2018 Spaul wasn’t the spokesman on the news, he was in the news when he was inducted into Little Rock District’s Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees.
“I personally know many of the members of the gallery and know what great work they did,” Spaul said after being presented the award at the District’s Engineer Day. “To be added to this group of employees is just so humbling.”
Spaul began his career with the Little Rock District in December 1983 as a public affairs specialist. He became the district’s public affairs officer in 2007 where he led his team who used a variety of public information tools to help save lives and protect property during the many floods and natural disasters experienced throughout the district. Through media queries, public gatherings, social media, and Internet efforts, he and his team developed and disseminated timely, essential information through multiple channels to ensure the public had news it needed.
“PJ was always so cool under fire,” said Mike Biggs, chief of the Hydraulic and Hydrology Branch. “He taught me lessons that I still pass along to my employees. For example, while dealing with confrontational media personnel, PJ would say, ‘don’t get into arguments with people who buy ink by the barrel.’ PJ just had a talent for communicating with people in tough situations.”
Spaul’s job covered all of the district’s varied missions.
In the 1980s, while President Reagan was engaged in arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, he was the district’s spokesman to national and world media during dismantlement of 17 Inter-continental ballistic missile silos in Arkansas. Spaul also provided public affairs responses in Arkansas and Missouri during the floods of 1986, 1990, 2008 and 2011; three barge accidents at Corps dams; and multiple tornado recovery efforts in Arkansas and Oklahoma.
“PJ was focused on educating our elected officials, stakeholders and the general public,” said Biggs. “He would remind me that we have honorable missions that are authorized by Congress, but because our missions are so complex, not everyone would understand or agree with how we do our jobs.”
Beginning in the 1980’s, Spaul communicated risk management issues for dam safety rehabilitation projects at Wilbur D. Mills, Beaver, and Table Rock dams, and most recently, during the Clearwater Dam Major Rehabilitation. He also served as an instructor of risk communications for the Corps’ Learning Center Dam Safety Course.
Spaul was also the voice and face of Little Rock District for the construction of Montgomery Point Lock & Dam on the White River. From its inception in the 1980’s to its dedication in 2004, he managed news coverage and public relations for what was the Corps’ largest civil works construction project underway at the time.
Spaul also deployed outside of the Little Rock District in support of the Corps’ emergency response missions.
He went to New Orleans in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina during the unwatering of the city. Spaul worked long hours to provide vital information to storm victims, local officials, and the media. His knowledge, skills, and abilities were used to educate the public with facts that helped people understand why the levees failed and what the Corps was doing for them and their city.
During the 2008 floods in Arkansas and Southern Missouri, Spaul developed innovative responses to the media and the public that helped communicate complicated hydrologic and hydraulic information. The 2008 flood was a public relations challenge because it was not the result of a single storm, instead it was from the cumulative effects of a series of repeated storm systems spread over months, each storm event creating ever-changing scenarios. For his work during this flood event, Spaul was awarded the 2008 Michael C. Robinson Practitioner of the Year Award from USACE Chief of Engineers.
In 2011 austere budgets threatened to force mission adjustments that included closing some Little Rock District park facilities. Spaul and his public affairs team, helped the district gain public understanding and acceptance through a community relations program with elected officials, partners, stakeholders and the public.
“Because of PJ and the PAO team’s attention to detail, the district was successful in generating offers from local governments and volunteer groups to take on maintenance responsibilities so that many of the facilities slated for closure could remain open,” said Titus Hardiman, chief of the Natural Resources Management Branch.
Their efforts were lauded by the Corps’ chain of command because other districts were seeking appropriate ways to reduce their levels of service as well. The vice chair of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development said it was a model for others in the Corps. For this outstanding effort, Spaul and his team were awarded the Corps’ 2011 Locke L. Mouton Award in the Community Relations category.
Then again in the spring of 2011, the Little Rock District experienced a historic flood event. The flooding affected all of Little Rock District’s multi-purpose lakes and navigational projects (25 dams, 308 miles of navigation channel, 178 public parks, seven hydroelectric plants and more). Communities, homes, businesses and farmland along the rivers and many tributaries were flooded, especially the Arkansas, White, and Black rivers.
In all, the flooding reached record levels in nine of the district’s 12 multi-purpose lakes. Six of the lakes exceeded their maximum capacity, and spillway releases were necessary more than once to prevent the dams from overtopping. Before the water stopped rising, 60 percent of the district’s park facilities were flooded, and many remained flooded through the recreation season.
The McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System also experienced unusually high flows. The Arkansas River normally flows at 20,000 to 40,000 cubic feet per second, but during the worst of the flooding, river flows exceeded 320,000 cfs, requiring small craft advisories that remained in place through the spring and summer months.
Levees along the White, Black and Little Red rivers experienced water levels that had not been seen since 1982. Some aging levees along the rivers were unable to hold back the onslaught. The Black River reached its second highest level in more than 90 years at Pocahontas, Ark.
Spaul again devised transparent messages to educate the public concerning safety, water levels, water releases, and how the Corps greatly mitigated the damage to people and property.
During his career, Spaul earned an excellent reputation with his supervisors, co-workers, and subordinates. He remained calm under pressure and was highly sought after as a principal advisor to the command group, senior staff, and field offices on fast-breaking communication issues.
“PJ’s level headed approach to understanding the Corps’ many missions and ability to communicate helped the Little Rock District build healthy working relationships with our stakeholders,” Biggs said.
Spaul is also a retired Army Reservist who spent 23 years as a Soldier in Active, Reserve and National Guard components. He has served as an Infantryman, Army Journalist, Broadcast Journalist and Senior Instructor. He has served as editor of two Army newspapers and a weekly university newspaper. He has been a news reporter and a state bureau chief for the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and has completed graduate work at the University of South Carolina. He is a graduate of the Army Advanced Public Affairs Officers Course, the Defense Information School Broadcast Journalism Course and the DINFOS Senior Public Affairs Course.
He is married to the former Eva Mosley. The couple has two grown children, six grandchildren and one great granddaughter.
Spaul is the 65th member of Little Rock District’s Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees, all of whom were recognized for their significant contributions during their tenures with the district.